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HomeCentral AmericaHondurasSurviving the Slaughter: One Year After Honduras' Deadliest Prison Massacre

Surviving the Slaughter: One Year After Honduras’ Deadliest Prison Massacre

Samantha still does not know how she survived the slaughter of 46 fellow inmates in a brutal gang battle at Honduras’s only women’s prison a year ago. Only “something supernatural” could explain how she did not succumb when incarcerated members of the Barrio 18 gang burst into a prison area housing the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) group, shot several of them, and set the place on fire, she said.

Officials said 23 inmates were shot dead in the massacre on June 20, 2023, at the prison in Tamara, just northwest of the capital Tegucigalpa. Another 23 were burned to death. Twelve months after the gruesome events, Samantha said she had been in her cell that morning when she heard “shots and screaming.”

She and other inmates made a hole in the prison roof to try and escape the bloodbath. “It was not a good idea” and they ducked back inside as they came under fire, recounted Samantha, who like other survivors interviewed and did not want to give her real name.

“We had no choice but to leave it in God’s hands. We were surrounded,” the 25-year-old convicted extortionist said in the prison infirmary, only her eyes visible behind a black balaclava. When the shooting ended, the wall “behind me was full of holes,” said Samantha.

A fellow inmate had been shot dead right in front of her. Prisoner Wendy, 32, said on a visit to the facility Monday that women were mowed down to the “left and right” of her, but “no one helped.”

And Rosario, 68, said she could not believe that only two women out of 120 on her cell block had died. One of the two, she said, “had only three days left on her sentence” when she was mowed down “in cold blood.”

Security emergency

Honduras is a country with a particularly high rate of violence in its 25 prisons — which hold some 21,000 inmates. More than 1,000 prisoners have been killed in 20 years. 

After the 2023 massacre, President Xiomara Castro declared a state of emergency and dismissed the security minister. She replaced the guards at the prison — suspected of having let in the guns used in the attack — with members of an elite military police unit.

The unit was also deployed to the country’s other prisons, and there have been no major revolts or riots among Honduran detainees since.Seven Barrio 18 gangsters among the rioting women have been charged in the 2023 massacre — one of the deadliest on record as gangs have terrorized Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in their fight for drug and extortion revenues.

As the battle continues, Castro announced last week that her government would build a 20,000-capacity “mega prison” after the example of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, credited with slashing gang violence in his country in recent years.

Neighboring Honduras remains one of the world’s most violent nations with a homicide rate of 34 per 100,000 inhabitants last year — almost six times the world average. Castro has described it as a “security emergency.”

Dignified place

On Monday, 100 new guards arrived at the women’s prison, joining the 260 members of the elite military police unit temporarily charged with overseeing 661 inmates in a facility with place for only 400.

The arrivals are members of a specialized new force of about 1,000 being trained to take over prison security in Honduras. Deputy prison director Dinora Molina told AFP this week the cell blocks were being enlarged to transform the facility into “a dignified place.”

Last week, 100 Barrio 18 members were transferred to another prison to separate them from their MS-13 foes. “They’ve left… we feel calmer,” said Samantha, who has served less than half of her 11-year sentence.

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