Targeted killings, massacres, and deadly riots have all occurred in Honduras' maximum-security prisons this year, putting a spotlight on how violence has spiraled out of control despite government efforts to stop it.
Since November 2019, at least 55 killings have taken place inside Honduras’ prison system, according to InSight Crime’s count of murders by inmates reported in local media. Officials did not respond to requests for these figures.
The most recent killings occurred on August 6, when three suspected Barrio 18 gang members were found strangled in La Tolva prison, east of Tegucigalpa, Proceso Digital reported.
Digna Aguilar, a spokeswoman for the National Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario), told InSight Crime in a text message that the area of the prison where the crime occurred only houses "members of the same gang." For this reason, authorities say the massacre likely had to do with an internal conflict among Barrio 18 gang members, a version of events also reported by local media. Aguilar said in a press conference that authorities are still investigating.
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La Tolva prison was also the scene of a riot in December 2019 that left five suspected MS13 gang members dead. Another 37 alleged gang members were also murdered that month during riots in El Provenir prison in the capital Tegucigalpa and Tela prison in northern Atlántida department.
The country’s prisons currently hold more than twice the number of inmates they were designed for, and international organizations, such as the United Nations, have expressed concerns about the violence in such facilities.
InSight Crime Analysis
In 2017, InSight Crime revealed in an in-depth investigation that Honduras’ prisons had transformed into powerful incubators for organized crime groups. In a San Pedro Sula prison, for example, jailed MS13 and Barrio 18 gang members were able to continue their activities and use violence to exert control, all without interference from officials.
The government later closed the jail that same year. But the violence has persisted even in maximum-security prisons built specifically to curb gang control.
La Tolva maximum security prison was set up in 2017 as a means to relieve Honduras’ overcrowded prison system. When hundreds of gang members from the Támara prison, in Tegucigalpa, were transferred to La Tolva, authorities claimed that the gang members "wouldn't have any more luxuries" and would see their power curtailed. This, in theory, would be achieved through better surveillance and security controls, including the isolating of gang members.
The recent gang killings at La Tolva, however, underscore that the new maximum-security prisons are plagued by the same dynamics as before. After the killings last December, President Juan Orlando Hernández ordered a state of emergency in the country's prisons, placing the police and military in charge of their security.
Targeted killings have also been rampant. In December 2019, the director of El Pozo prison, another new maximum-security facility in Santa Bárbara department in the west of Honduras, was killed just days after the drug trafficker Nery Orlando López was shot dead in a gory prison slaying.
Video shows the quick assassination of López, also known as Magdaleno Meza Fúnez, whose ledgers were used as evidence in the US drug trafficking case against Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the president's brother who was ultimately convicted.
Lopez’s lawyer, Carlos Chajtur, said at that time that the video suggests a “plot by the penitentiary authorities and maybe higher-level authorities,” the Associated Press reported.
In July, Barrio 18 gang leader Ricky Alexander Zelaya Camacho, alias "Boxer Huber," was shot dead by the same gunman who killed López in a similar ambush at the Támara prison, El Heraldo reported. In Zelaya Camacho's killing, two guards removed him his cell and took him to the prison barbershop to perform cleaning duties, where he was killed.
Authorities also recorded the country’s first-ever massacre inside a female prison this year, in which six women with suspected links to the MS13 were murdered by rival Barrio 18 members. Some inmates claimed that the prison’s director was present during the slaughter in May.
Meanwhile, the weakness of prison controls was put on display in July when authorities seized several AK-47 rifles and grenades that were used to attack guards in the Támara prison, according to Tiempo Digital.
“Here we have a situation that raises more questions than answers. How do those weapons get into a maximum-security prison?” said a human rights activist specializing in prison issues who spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“I believe there is shared governance [of the prison] between the criminal groups inside and parts of the government,” the activist added.
Orlín Castro, a journalist from San Pedro Sula specializing in security issues, told InSight Crime that these types of prison massacres, as well as the smuggling of high-powered weapons, points to a “complete lack of control” on the part of the authorities.
“The gangs are the ones that are [more often than not] linked to these clashes. Two weeks ago there were six injured and two killed in the Puerto Cortés prison,” Castro said in a text message. “The attack targeted a drug trafficker and enemy of the MS13.”
Main Photo: AP