GUATEMALA CITY – Sixteen people have been killed in fighting between rival gangs in a maximum-security prison in Guatemala, a top official said Monday as security forces tried to regain control of the facility.
Army troops and police surrounded the Granja Penal Canadá prison, which holds 3,100 inmates, but have refrained from entering it because of reports prisoners were armed, deputy Interior Minister Elmer Sosa said.
Clashes erupted Sunday between two rival gangs inside the maximum security facility, which is located 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Guatemala City.
“We are coordinating with prosecutors on an investigation into the death of 16 inmates,” Sosa told reporters.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are plagued by turf battles between violent street gangs fighting to control impoverished communities.
The most powerful of these are the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, rival gangs whose members are usually held in separate prisons to avoid conflict.
More than 6,000 people are murdered a year in Guatemala, mainly at the hands of gangs engaged in contract killings, extortion and drug trafficking. In a bid to curb the violence, Guatemala has deployed nearly 800 police and soldiers in the capital, which is home to some 3.3 million people. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras together reported 15,802 murders in 2014, according to official figures.
So far this year through September, 4,281 murders have occurred in Guatemala, and 4,942 in El Salvador. Honduras reported another 2,628 murders in the first half of the year.
More than 50 percent of the victims across the three countries were younger than 25.
Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country with 15.8 million inhabitants, is still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.