The office of radical socialist Honduran President Xiomara Castro said on Wednesday that control of the Honduras prison system will be transferred to the military police for at least one year.
The change was inspired by a massive and deadly riot at a women’s prison on Tuesday that killed at least 46 people at last count.
The riot at the Centro Femenino de Adaptacion Social prison in Tamara, which is about 30 miles northwest of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, reportedly began as a clash between members of two infamous rival gangs: the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13. Taunts between gang members escalated into violence, arson, and murder.
“A group of armed people went to the cellblock of a rival gang, locked the doors, opened fire on those inside and apparently – this is still under investigation – used some kind of oil to set fire to them,” said Juan Lopez Rochez, chief of operations for the Honduran national police.
Other reports said members of one gang were able to set fire to the mattresses in cells holding their rivals, burning them alive. Some of the dead were found piled up in bathrooms, where they evidently sought refuge from the fires.
Many of the victims were killed by machetes and gunfire as fighting raged through the halls and courtyard of the prison. The police confiscated 18 handguns, two machine pistols, two grenades, and an assault rifle after the riot was controlled.
“Obviously, there must have been human failures,” conceded Lopez Rochez.
Castro said on Tuesday that the riot was “planned by gangs with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities.” Prison officials said the warring gangs “removed” most of the prison guards without injuring them.
A spokesman for the Honduran security ministry said much of the riot was taped by security cameras until the gang members managed to disable them.
“You can see the moment in which the women overcome the guards, leaving them helpless, and take their keys,” the spokesman said.
The top Honduran penal officer, Julissa Villanueva, suggested the riot was a reaction to a recent crackdown on prison corruption that removed a number of compromised security guards.
Castro vowed to take “drastic measures,” beginning with a reshuffle that moved security minister Ramon Antonio to the foreign service, replacing him with the chief of the national police, Gustavo Sanchez.
Later on Tuesday, Castro sacked every member of the commission overseeing the crackdown on prison corruption, then announced control of 21 out of 26 prisons would be returned to the military police, who controlled the penal system until the left-wing Castro took office in 2022.
Castro also extended the “state of exception” – a state of emergency just shy of martial law – covering parts of Honduras and proposed constructing isolated island prisons to hold the most dangerous gang leaders. Her administration asked the judiciary to consider releasing some of the inmates from the crowded prison where the riot occurred.
The UK Guardian in January quoted Hondurans who worried Castro was making a disastrous mistake by removing military control of the prison system and pulling military officers out of the national anti-gang task force. The Guardian described her ill-fated “reforms” as a “messy divorce” that pushed out experienced military officers and deprived law enforcement of much-needed manpower.
The Guardian cited some criticism of Castro for panicking under a rising tide of crime and fumbling to emulate her neighbor Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, whose all-out war on gangs has been criticized by human rights activists, but has broken the power of gangs and brought him sky-high approval ratings. Other Hondurans wished Castro would follow Bukele’s policies more closely.
Families of the Tamara inmates crowded around the prison on Wednesday, waiting to learn the fates of their imprisoned friends and relatives. Some said it was obvious that a riot would erupt soon and wondered why the authorities did not take action.
One woman told the Associated Press (AP) that her imprisoned friend warned her a riot was brewing on Sunday.
“She told me the last time I saw her on Sunday that the ‘18’ people had threatened them, that they were going to kill them if they didn’t turn over a relative,” the woman said, referring to the 18th Street Gang. As the AP explained, “turning over” an acquaintance or relative to the gangs means giving them the name and address of someone who is not in prison, so the gang can target them for abduction, robbery, or murder.
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