Score-settling between members of the same gang within prisons in Honduras is an old and recurring practice. The jails of this Central American country have been soaked in the blood of gang members for 16 years.
Just last March, there was a wave of infighting among members of the Barrio 18 street gang after President Juan Orlando Hernandez transferred at least 105 gang-affiliated inmates to different penitentiary centers as part of “Operation Zero Privileges.”
On March 11, the principal leaders of the Barrio 18 -- Nahum Montes Medina, alias “Tacoma,” Howen Alexis Romero, alias “Raton,” and Olvin Reinaldo Arriaga Baca, alias “Porqui” -- were taken out of San Pedro Sula's penal institution in an attempt to weaken the gang's presence inside the prison.
Nine days later, seven members of the Barrio 18 were strangled by fellow gang members in San Pedro Sula as well as the prison in Tamara. The victims were supposedly killed for attempting to sexually abuse the visitors of the other gang members.
Similar incidents throughout the years have demonstrated the way in which gang members resolve internal conflicts, which are usually caused by attempts to reorder the gang's leadership.
The best example of intra-gang violence within prisons is the first battle between members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) that happened in 2000. This story has been kept from the public for years, but now we reveal the bloody details for the first time.
Rupture of the “SUR”
In 1997, inmates in San Pedro Sula replicated the California prison model known as “SUR,” in which rival gangs tolerate and protect each other within prison walls in order to confront other criminal organizations, while on the streets they remain enemies. The truce lasted close to two years and its rupture triggered the first killings between members of the same gang, according to testimonies from two gangsters who lived through it.
In 1999, the San Pedro Sula prison held in the same cell block -- and without physical barriers -- the MS13, Barrio 18, Wanderer 13, La 75, Sunseri, Poison, Barrio Pobre, and Vatos Locos gangs.
At that time the Barrio 18 was the largest in number. Those who were there estimate Barrio 18 had close to 80 members, while MS13 had some 30 members. The expansion of the Barrio 18 extended beyond manpower, however, and included physical space and influence within the prison. The gang even had a black pit bull named Little Satanas. It was when Little Satanas was in the hands of the Barrio 18 that the M13 gang members began to feel the SUR was being threatened.
Geofredo Cortes Ortiz, alias “Geo,” was a member of the MS13 and the gang's representative in the SUR. He had been deported from Los Angeles, bringing with him a criminal history that he hid from the gang for a long time. During his time in California he was a member of the Play Boys, a mortal enemy of the MS13. When Geo was deported, he camouflaged himself as a gang member in order to remain alive in Honduras. Geo was in the mouth of the wolf.
On the Barrio 18 side, a Salvadoran youth known as “Spanky” was in charge.
The atmosphere in the prison was never harmonious, but it became even more tense during the latter half of 1999. Disagreements between gangs sparked rumors the SUR was about to end. Anxious, MS13 members thought about breaking the truce before they themselves became victims, and on more than one occasion conveyed this message to Geo. The MS13 spokesman, however, asked them to remain calm.
“Saybo” has narrated a large part of this story because he was there. He retired from the MS13 12 years ago, explaining the crossed-out gang tattoos on his shoulders. Inside the Tamara prison to the north of Tegucigalpa, Saybo swears more than once that Geo betrayed the MS13.
Geo knew the Barrio 18 was planning an attack against the MS13: “Spanky,” the leader of the Barrio 18, told him so. Spanky also told Geo to disarm his fellow MS13 members if he wanted to avoid a brutal death at the hands of the Barrio 18.
So, Geo took away the handmade machetes from the other MS13 members while assuring them the SUR would be respected and that nothing bad would happen to them. Saybo heard Geo make these statements more than once.
The plan to hand over the MS13 did not just consist in corrupting their leader; it also had the backing of prison officials and the other gangs. That's why on one occasion the guards made a surprising seizure of the arsenal of machetes that Geo had previously removed, under the pretext the SUR was still in place.
SEE ALSO: MS13 News and Profile
As part of the plan, Geo was accused of possession of the seized weapons and sent to a punishment cell along with a fellow gang member, “Cuervo.” The MS13 chose “Oso” and “Soro” as emergency representatives of the gang, which had now been left disarmed and weakened.
Two weeks later, members of La 75 gang cut the wire that supplied electricity to the MS13 section, inflaming tempers. It was intended to provoke the MS13 so the authorities enforcing the SUR could sanction them.
Following protocol, Oso and Soro talked with leaders of the Barrio 18 and other gangs like the Vatos Locos and the Wanderers 13. They explained what happened and wanted a confrontation one-on-one with who was responsible. The SUR representatives agreed that a physical confrontation was needed to resolve the problem. The gangs had agreed to attack the MS13 as soon as they began fighting La 75.
And that's what happened. As night fell on November 12, the guards locked the doors so that no one would leave. Armed with sharpened pieces of metal, members of the Barrio 18, Wanderers 13, Barrio Pobre, La 75, Poison and Sunseri brutalized without remorse various members of the MS13 and Vatos Locos for almost an hour.
Several gang members were lying on their beds when it began to rain machetes. Saybo and a handful of others managed to escape via a small gap in the ceiling. Geo had betrayed them.
One member of the MS13, Marcio Arturo Sanchez, alias “Recio,” who would eventually die in a prison fire in February 2012, wrote three short books in which he described the outcome of the bloodbath.
“I saw how a member of the Barrio 18 cut the head off of an MS13, I stopped and asked them what had happened with the SUR. The devil had quickly taken over their minds,” Sanchez wrote in his book titled “Errors and Secrets of the Maras.”
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile
The final tally was 11 deaths and 31 injured. Two victims belonged to the Vatos Locos and the rest to the MS13. According to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, all the deaths were caused by blows with sharpened weapons. The bodies had multiple lacerations and were unrecognizable. Some had lost their head, while other didn't have their ears. Many of them were given to Little Satanas to swallow.
“We had a dog that ate some of the bodies of the people that were killed,” recalls "Scrappy," a veteran of the Barrio 18 who was assassinated a few years ago. On the day of the massacre, Scrappy made a collar out of victims' ears as a symbol of victory.
It was a bloody scene. Survivors of the MS13 and Vatos Locos were attended to and put in isolation in a school within the prison. The massacre ended the SUR and began a war within the MS13.
Geo and Cuervo were sent to the penal institution in Tamara five days later as a preventative measure. They spent one year away while their fellow MS13 members connected the dots and paid a lawyer to have Geo and Cuero transferred back to the San Pedro Sula prison. Geo “sold us out, he sold us out,” Saybo murmured repeatedly.
Geo's Brutal Murder
A meeting within the prison was held before Geo returned in order to decide how to assassinate him. This was the first ordered killing against a fellow gang member. Geo had to pay.
The attack against Geo opened a new chapter for the MS13. One gang member, “El Veloz,” told a guard about the plan to assassinate Geo, a revelation that cost him his life. The MS13 first had to kill the informant, according to Saybo, and El Veloz unexpectedly jumped ahead of Geo on the kill list. He too had to pay.
Saybo used emphatic hand gestures and showed no sign of remorse when describing how El Piojo brought an iron to El Veloz's throat. “The informants must die,” is the phrase Saybo still remembers.
Geo came back to the prison one year after the massacre. His fellow MS13 members were ready and had a meeting with him, in which they asked him what happened in 1999.
“Nothing more is needed, come forward,” they ordered Geo. Tormented, Geo didn't even try to take a step forward, Saybo said. So, someone threw him in the center. As soon as Geo started talking, they forced him to be quiet. “To talk to the MS13 you must have respect,” they reproached him. Then they made him kneel down.
“He even cried, asking for forgiveness and everything, while kneeling,” remembered "Maldito" more than 10 years later, widely considered the first MS13 gang member in Honduras.
They gave Geo the opportunity to defend himself. With tears in his eyes, he argued that it was thanks to him the gang had expanded into Honduras. At that moment Shaggy came quietly from behind and quickly put a machete through Geo's back, the sharpened iron sticking out through his chest.
In agony, Geo threw himself on the floor as the orifices of his body bubbled with blood. “Aguila” jumped from his bed with rage and stuck an enormous piece of iron in Geo's heart. Out of reflex, Geo got up, but soon a hive of gang members -- including Saybo -- began to finish him off.
The opening Geo had in the upper portion of his heart permitted the other gang members to take out the organ by pieces with their hands. They dragged him to the bathroom and raised him to the sink in order to decapitate him. They began to kick his head, as if he could disrespect them even while he was dead.
Meanwhile, in the sink the gang members sliced and dismembered Geo's body with Gillette razors. Each of Geo's extremities was passed between the gang members in order to reduce them to the smallest pieces possible.
The rest of his tissues were thrown into the bathroom pipes. Outside, nobody had noticed what had happened. A television playing at high volume had helped to drown out the shouts and the noise. This all happened on October 8, 2000.
They threw the bones in a sack and crushed each one with weights until they were nothing more than dust. According to Saybo, the kicked-in cranium was the last piece of the body to disappear. It had the tattooed letters of the MS13, which the gang members had to respect until the very end.
That is the story of Geo, the first evidence of how gang members settle scores in Honduran prisons.