A grisly riot at a women’s prison in Honduras on Tuesday has left at least 41 women dead in an outburst of violence that the country’s president blamed on “mara” street gangs that often wield broad power inside penitentiaries.
Most victims were burned but there also were reports of inmates shot or stabbed at the prison in Tamara, about 50km (30 miles) northwest of the capital Tegucigalpa, said Yuri Mora, the spokesman for Honduras’s national police investigation agency.
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At least seven female inmates were being treated at a Tegucigalpa hospital for gunshot and knife wounds, employees there said.
“The forensic teams that are removing bodies confirm they have counted 41,” said Mora.
Conmocionada monstruoso asesinato de mujeres en CEFAS, planificado por maras a vista y paciencia de autoridades de seguridad. Mi solidaridad con familiares. Convoco a rendir cuentas al Ministro de Seguridad y la presidenta de la Comisión Interventora. ¡Tomaré medidas drásticas !
— Xiomara Castro de Zelaya (@XiomaraCastroZ) June 20, 2023
Local media interviewed one injured inmate outside the hospital who said prisoners belonging to the feared Barrio 18 gang burst into a cell block and shot other inmates or set them on fire.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro said the riot was “planned by maras with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities”.
“I am going to take drastic measures!” Castro wrote on her social media accounts in the wake of the attack.
Dozens of anxious, angry relatives gathered outside the prison in an attempt to learn the fates of their loved ones.
“We are here dying of anguish, of pain,” said Salomón García, whose daughter is an inmate at the facility. “We don’t have any information.”
Julissa Villanueva, head of the country’s prison system, suggested the riot started because of recent attempts to crack down on illicit activity inside the prisons and called Tuesday’s violence a reaction to moves “we are taking against organised crime”.
“We will not back down,” Villanueva said in a televised address after the riot.
Gangs wield broad control inside the country’s prisons, where inmates often set their own rules and sell prohibited goods.
The riot appears to be the worst tragedy at a female detention centre in Central America since 2017, when girls at a shelter for troubled youths in Guatemala set fire to mattresses to protest rapes and other mistreatment at the badly overcrowded institution. The ensuing smoke and fire killed 41 girls.
The worst prison disaster in a century also occurred in Honduras, in 2012 at the Comayagua penitentiary, where 361 inmates died in a fire possibly caused by a match, cigarette or some other open flame.
Tuesday’s riot may increase the pressure on Honduras to emulate the drastic zero-tolerance, no-privilege prisons set in up in neighbouring El Salvador under President Nayib Bukele. While El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs has given rise to rights violations, it has also proved immensely popular in a country long terrorised by street gangs.