Honduran President Xiomara Castro blames the violence on criminal gangs, which wield significant power in the prison system.
At least 41 women were killed in an outbreak of deadly riot violence at a women’s prison in Honduras on Tuesday that the country’s president blamed on “Mara” street gangs that often wield enormous power inside the penitentiary.
Most of the victims were burned, but there were reports of inmates being shot or stabbed at the prison in Tamara, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of the capital, Tegucigalpa, said Uri Mora, a spokesman for Honduras’ national police investigation agency.
At least seven female inmates are being treated at a Tegucigalpa hospital for gunshot and stab wounds, staff there said.
“The forensic teams that are removing the bodies confirmed that they counted 41,” Mora said.
Conmocionada monstruoso asesinato de mujeres en CEFAS, planificado por maras a vista y paciencia de authorities de seguridad. My solidarity with acquaintances. Convoco a render cuentas al Ministero de Seguridad y la Presidenta de la Comisión Interventora. Medidus drasticus to you!
— Giomara Castro de Zelaya (@GiomaraCastroZ) June 20, 2023
Local media interviewed a wounded inmate outside the hospital who said inmates of the dreaded Barrio 18 gang burst into a cell block and shot or set other inmates on fire.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro said the riot was “planned by the Marauders with the knowledge and consent of the security authorities”.
“I’m going to take drastic measures!” Castro wrote on his social media account in the wake of the attack.
Dozens of anxious, angry relatives gathered outside the prison trying to learn the fate of their loved ones.
“We are dying here in agony, in agony,” said Salomon Garcia, whose daughter is an inmate at the facility. “We have no information.”
Julisa Villanueva, the head of the country’s prison system, suggested that the riots were sparked by recent efforts to crack down on illegal activity inside prisons and called Tuesday’s violence a response to “we are taking action against organized crime.”
“We will not back down,” Villanueva said in a televised address after the riots.
Gangs exercise extensive control inside the country’s prisons, where inmates often set their own rules and sell contraband.
The riot appears to be the worst tragedy at a women’s detention center in Central America since 2017, when girls at a shelter for troubled youth in Guatemala set fire to mattresses to protest rape and other mistreatment at the badly overcrowded facility. 41 girls died in the ensuing smoke and fire.
The worst prison disaster in a century also occurred in Honduras, in 2012 at Comayagua Penitentiary, where 361 inmates died in a fire caused by matches, cigarettes or other open flames.
Tuesday’s riots could increase pressure on Honduras to emulate the strict zero-tolerance, no-privileges prisons established in neighboring El Salvador under President Naib Buquel. While El Salvador’s crackdown on gangs has led to rights abuses, it has also proved extremely popular in a country terrorized by street gangs.