At least 17 people were killed in fights inside a Guatemala prison, taking violence levels to new heights within a penitentiary system plagued by overcrowding, gangs and corruption.
Fighting broke out inside the Granja Penal Canada prison on the afternoon of November 29 and continued for several hours until approximately 2,000 police were deployed to retake the prison, reported AFP. Of the 17 prisoners left dead in the violence, seven were decapitated, reported various news sources.
The reasons for the violence remain unconfirmed, but preliminary reports suggest the killings were carried out by common criminals, known in Guatemala as "paisas," against gang members, known as "cholos."
Family members of prisoners and investigators speaking to elPeriodico said the attack was retaliation for the gangs' extortion schemes, which included levying charges on visitors entering the prison, and an attempt to break the gang members' control of the prison.
Other hypotheses being touted include intra-gang fighting and an escape attempt, reported Prensa Libre.
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As in much of the region, conditions in most of Guatemala's prisons are atrocious, largely because of intense overcrowding. Overall, the country's prison system has an occupancy rate of 270.6 percent, while in Granja Penal Canada, there are over 3,000 prisoners in a space built for just 600.
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While such issues create fertile conditions for prison violence, the situation is exacerbated by the presence of the "mara" street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18. These gangs often seek to take control of the lucrative business opportunities found within the prison economy, including activities such as extortion and drug sales.
If the preliminary reports are correct and the killings were an attempt by common prisoners to break the gangs' control, then the massacre echoes previous violence in the Guatemalan prison system, in particular an incident in 2008 when inmates murdered seven gang members, decapitated them and placed their heads on stakes.
According to the BBC, the Granja Penal Canada massacre raises the total number of Guatemala prison deaths in 2015 to 39, exceeding the previous record set in 2005. That year, the MS13 launched a series of confrontations, after abandoning their policy of non-aggression with their rivals behind prison walls.