A massacre between the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs in Honduras’ most notorious prison raises questions on whether the military is having any impact since taking over responsibility for security in December 2019.
Once again, the violence took place in the notorious La Tolva prison, east of capital city Tegucigalpa. The brawl broke out at 8 a.m., on June 17, when incarcerated members of Barrio 18, one of Honduras’ largest gangs, entered a section reserved for members of their rivals, the MS13.
A grenade was allegedly thrown at MS13 members playing football, killing several people, before the two gangs fired on one another with semi-automatic weapons as well as using fragmentation grenades in several parts of the prison, La Prensa reported, citing official sources. When the violence ended, at least five people had been killed and 39 were injured, including several police officers, according to media reports.
This is but the latest in a series of violent incidents in Honduran prisons. While the Barrio 18 and MS13 prisoners are supposed to be kept separate, murderous clashes still break out. In December 2019, a riot at La Tolva prison left five suspected MS13 gang members dead. That month, another 43 alleged gang members died in riots at two other prisons in Tegucigalpa and the northern department of Atlántida.
In response, President Juan Orlando Hernández declared a state of emergency, suspending officials across the prison system and putting the military and police in charge of security inside penitentiaries.
It is uncertain if this has made any impact so far. Killings have certainly continued, including inside women’s prisons, which are ordinarily more peaceful.
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Over the eighteen months that Honduras’ armed forces have been guarding prisons, there have been no measurable signs of progress.
And after the latest killings at La Tolva, serious questions are being raised as to whether the situation has only worsened. Foremost among these was how gang members were able to get their hands on military-grade weaponry, including grenades and semi-automatic rifles.
Prison authorities confirmed two days after the violence that such weaponry had been used but provided no information as to how the prisoners may have gained access to it.
Prisoners’ rights associations swiftly called for the army to be removed from its role.
“It is urgent for the president to make decisions today, as the penitentiary system has collapsed. We are calling for the authorities to be removed, the soldiers don’t give a damn about overseeing the prisons,” said Delma Ordoñez, president of a non-governmental organization, the Association of Families of Those Deprived of Freedom (Asociación de Familiares de Privados de Libertad), in a press statement.
The immediate response from authorities was not reassuring. When asked to respond to this call for their removal, instead of promising substantive changes, military officials counter-attacked. In a television interview, the head of the country’s anti-gang task force, Colonel Amilcar Hernández, accused Ordoñez and her organization of having been bribed by gangs to exaggerate what is happening in prisons.
The gangs “only represent 15 percent of the prison population and they only talk about them. They only defend them. What is happening to the other 85 percent? These defenders are not objective,” said Hernández.
Another senior military official echoed Hernández, stating that human rights organizations were only responding to cases, as ordered to by MS13 leadership, but did not provide further evidence.
According to Hernández, Ordoñez’s organization had received 250,000 lempiras ($10,400) from gangs but when pressed to give more details, the colonel stated that he would not provide more information as he did not want to endanger anyone.
Ordoñez dismissed all such claims, stating she had never received any such payments and that authorities were simply shifting the blame.