A recently published video appears to show the head of Guatemala's penitentiary system negotiating with gang leaders in a maximum-security prison, a stark reminder of how much authority the state has ceded to criminals behind bars.
Guatevisión published a video on May 4 that was allegedly recorded during a November 2016 security check at the Fraijanes maximum-security prison.
In the video, several masked men can be seen speaking with alleged leaders of the Barrio 18 gang, whose faces are uncovered. According to the news outlet, one of the masked men is Nicolás García, the director of Guatemala's penitentiary system.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles
In the recording, the man identified as García can be heard reprimanding his interlocutors for the escape of four other gang leaders from the prison.
"You have had your space, but you haven't known how to use it," the masked figure says in reference to the incident.
In a remarkable display of the control the gang maintains behind prison walls, one portion of the video shows two of the alleged gang leaders opening locks on prison gates to allow security elements to enter and conduct their search.
"Look, I need you to open all the spaces," an officer tells two alleged gang leaders.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. No problem," one replies.
SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile
Citing an anonymous source close to the case, Guatevisión reported that there were no alterations or apparent breaches of the security perimeter that could explain the flight of the four gang members, suggesting that prison guards simply allowed the inmates to walk out the door.
At one point, the gang leaders can be heard threatening García, warning that innocent people would die in the event that authorities carried out transfers of prisoners from the Fraijanes prison.
As shown in a separate video from Guatevisión, this threat was explicitly reiterated by one of the leaders, Rudy Francisco Alfaro, alias "El Smurf," during the February 2017 transfer of him and other gang members to the Escuintla maximum-security facility. The prison, nicknamed "El Infiernito" (Little Hell), is reportedly considered by inmates as one of the prisons with the worst incarceration conditions.
Two months after the transfer, on April 22, the temporary director of the Escuintla prison, José Pérez, was shot dead by several armed men in broad daylight in the middle of a public park. According to Guatevisión, Pérez was murdered for having refused to let inmates have electrical appliances, despite approval from García.
(Video courtesy of Guatevisión)
InSight Crime Analysis
If the masked individual conversing with the gang leaders is indeed the director of Guatemala's penitentiary system as reported, this incident clearly demonstrates the government's failure to assert control over the Fraijanes prison and the incarcerated Barrio 18 members. Similarly, the episode where gang leaders can be seen voluntarily unlocking the gates to allow the security check offers perhaps the clearest illustration of the authorities' lack of control over what goes on behind bars.
Guatemala's prison system, however, is not unique in Latin America. Many countries' penetentiaries suffer from overcrowding and control by criminal groups.
Coincidently, the recording from Guatemala is reminiscent of a recent video that came out of Venezuela earlier this week, in which the South American country's prisons minister admitted to having been called directly by inmates in the middle of the night. In a striking confession during the television interview, Minister Iris Varela explained that the prisoners had called to complain about a violent riot, and that she eventually told them to take matters into their own hands.