Honduran prison riot kills 86 inmates

Sunday, April 6, 2003

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- A fistfight at a prison in northern Honduras escalated into a riot Saturday that left 86 inmates dead and dozens of prisoners and guards injured after the prisoners set fire to their mattresses and furniture, authorities said.

An unknown number of inmates escaped before authorities regained control of the complex three hours later.

Flames quickly engulfed one of the three wood and corrugated metal buildings of the El Porvenir prison in La Ceiba, 220 miles north of Tegucigalpa, the capital, prison spokesman Leonel Sauceda said.

Jose Cahuati, the director of a nearby state hospital that was receiving the dead and wounded, said his staff counted 86 bodies. The victims burned to death, died of smoke inhalation or were killed by inmates wielding homemade weapons.

Local television images showed hospital employees covering rows of bodies with plastic bags.

As many as 70 inmates and prison guards were hurt, a police spokesman said.

The riot began after members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang clashed with those loyal to another youth gang, La 18. The two groups are the largest and most violent of hundreds of Honduran gangs.

Jose Coca Villanueva, a spokesman for the El Porvenir inmates, said a major "territorial battle" set off the riot. Both sides used homemade knives and pistols to defend themselves, Sauceda said.

"It was horrible and all we could hear was the sound of screams of pain and terror. No one knew what was going on," Villanueva told reporters.

Prison guards rushing to restore order outside the prison were overrun by gang members, some of whom ran back to their cells and, with other inmates, set more fires, Sauceda said.

Police sent in 100 officers and some inmates escaped. Soldiers and police patrolled nearby streets and fields looking for escapees.

El Porvenir is a low-security prison farm close to the Caribbean coast where suspects facing drugs, weapons, rape and assault charges are held pending trial. Weapons and drugs are common and gang members often control cell blocks.

Prison riots are common in Latin America, where jails are overcrowded and loosely controlled. The 26 prisons in Honduras were built to house 5,500 inmates but have been crammed with 13,000 prisoners, according to government statistics.

Among the worst uprisings in Latin America occurred in 1992 in Sao Paolo's notorious Carandiru prison complex, the continent's largest. At least 111 inmates died when 120 riot troopers stormed a cell block to quell a bloody riot, officials said. Human rights groups and survivors put the death toll much higher, at nearly 300.

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