Deadly violence within female prisons in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is rare. But a spate of recent murders in a Honduran prison is a warning that underestimating the role of women within gang and prison structures could be costly.
On June 11, an alleged Barrio 18 gang member was strangled by her cellmates within the National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation (Penitenciaría Nacional Femenil de Adaptación Social — PNFAS) near the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, La Tribuna reported.
The violent incident came just weeks after a group of alleged Barrio 18 members set fire to the prison and stabbed and killed six suspected rival gang members in the MS13.
Four of the victims had been at the prison for three days after being captured by Honduras’ National Anti-Gang Force (Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas — FNAMP) in Tegucigalpa, where they had extorted local shopkeepers, according to La Prensa. The murders reportedly occurred with the prison director’s knowledge, according to statements from various inmates in a video that made the rounds in the media days later.
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“The prison director didn’t do a thing. She saw when the gang members murdered these women, but why didn’t she speak up?” said one of the presumed inmates, according to Tiempo. Another attempted uprising in the prison occurred that same day the video circulated, but nobody was killed, Proceso reported. The female prison’s inmate population is nearly double its capacity, according to local media reports.
Gang violence, just like bribing prison authorities and other forms of control, are common in Honduras’ male prisons where they have provoked various bloody battles between the MS13 and Barrio 18.
However, until now, it was unusual to see this type of violence in female prisons, including in El Salvador and Guatemala, where there’s also a sizable presence of jailed female gang members and collaborators.
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If women associated with gangs in Central America’s Northern Triangle haven’t shown the same level of violence and control within prisons as their male counterparts, the brutal killings in Tegucigalpa show this could be changing.
Orlín Castro, a Honduran journalist who specializes in gangs, told InSight Crime that the Barrio 18 has more control than any other group in the National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation.
Castro added that fights between Barrio 18 and MS13 gang members are common, as well as uprisings, but that this was the first recorded case of multiple homicides in a women’s prison. Digna Aguilar, the spokeswoman for Honduras’ National Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario de Honduras — INP), confirmed this.
“It’s the first time. … The majority of them [female prisoners] are passive, focused on their studies and coursework,” Aguilar told InSight Crime in a text message.
In a recent in-depth investigation about gender and organized crime, InSight Crime found that the roles women play in criminal groups and the levels of violence they employ vary greatly but are often overlooked.
This applies directly to female gang members in the Northern Triangle. In Honduras, for example, the number of female gang members that have faced a “brincada” — gang slang for an initiation beating — in the MS13 has decreased since 2003, according to investigator Carlos García, who specializes in gangs.
This isn’t the same case in El Salvador. There are generally more female gang members in both the MS13 and Barrio 18, which makes their role within prisons more protagonistic, according to García.
In Guatemala, the majority of female inmates associated with gangs are simply collaborators, and not fully initiated gang members. Ashley Williams, the director of a human rights non-governmental organization, told InSight Crime that violent disputes between women associated with gangs are rare.
“They don’t involve themselves in as many problems because [many] want to return to their children as soon as possible,” she told InSight Crime in a text message.