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Dozens of women die in a grisly riot in Honduran prison the president blames on gangs

Relatives of inmates wait in distress outside the entrance to the women's prison in Tamara, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, June 20, 2023.
Elmer Martinez
Relatives of inmates wait in distress outside the entrance to the women's prison in Tamara, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, June 20, 2023.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A grisly riot at a women's prison in Honduras Tuesday left at least 41 women dead, most burned to death, in violence the country's president blamed on "mara" street gangs that often wield broad power inside penitentiaries.

Twenty-six of the victims were burned to death and the remainder shot or stabbed at the prison in Tamara, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, said Yuri Mora, the spokesman for Honduras' national police investigation agency. At least seven inmates were being treated at a Tegucigalpa hospital.

"The forensic teams that are removing bodies confirm they have counted 41," said Mora.

Video clips shown by the government from inside the prison showed several pistols and a heap of machetes and other bladed weapons that were found after the riot.

Honduran President Xiomara Castro said the riot was "planned by maras with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities."

"I am going to take drastic measures!" Castro wrote in her social media accounts.

Prisoners belonging to the feared Barrio 18 gang reportedly burst into a cell block and shot other inmates or set them afire.

Relatives awaiting news about inmates gathered outside the morgue in Tegucigalpa. They confirmed that inmates in the prison had told them they lived in fear of the Barrio 18 gang.

Johanna Paola Soriano Euceda was waiting for news about her mother Maribel Euceda, and sister, Karla Soriano. Both were on trial for drug trafficking, but were held in the same area as convicted prisoners.

Soriano Euceda said they had told her on Sunday that "they (Barrio 18 members) were out of control, they were fighting with them all the time. That was the last time we talked."

Another group of dozens of anxious, angry relatives gathered outside the prison, located in a rural area about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the capital.

"We are here dying of anguish, of pain ... we don't have any information," said Salomón García, whose daughter is an inmate at the facility.

Azucena Martinez, whose daughter was also being held at the prison, said "there are a lot of dead, 41 already. We don't know if our relatives are also in there, dead."

Julissa Villanueva, head of the country's prison system, suggested the riot started because of recent attempts by authorities to crack down on illicit activity inside prisons and called Tuesday's violence a reaction to moves "we are taking against organized crime."

"We will not back down," Villanueva said in a televised address after the riot.

Gangs wield broad control inside the country's prisons, where inmates often set their own rules and sell prohibited goods.

They were also apparently able to smuggle in guns and other weapons, a recurring problem in Honduran prisons.

"The issue is to prevent people from smuggling in drugs, grenades and firearms," said Honduran human rights expert Joaquin Mejia. "Today's events show that they have not been able to do that."

The riot appears to be the worst tragedy at a female detention center in Central America since 2017, when girls at a shelter for troubled youths in Guatemala set fire to mattresses to protest rapes and other mistreatment at the badly overcrowded institution. The ensuing smoke and fire killed 41 girls.

The worst prison disaster in a century also occurred in Honduras, in 2012 at the Comayagua penitentiary, where 361 inmates died in a fire possibly caused by a match, cigarette or some other open flame.

Tuesday's riot may increase the pressure on Honduras to emulate the drastic zero-tolerance, no-privileges prisons set in up in neighboring El Salvador by President Nayib Bukele. While El Salvador's crackdown on gangs has given rise to rights violations, it has also proved immensely popular in a country long terrorized by street gangs.

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