Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 262 | Mayo 2003



Has ‘Social Cleansing’ of Gang Members Spread to Honduran Jails?

The carnage in El Porvenir and the serial killing of other youth gang members raises suspicions of a national “social cleansing” campaign promoted by business sectors, with the tolerance or complicity of the government authorities.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

On the morning of April 5, El Porvenir prison in the northern city of La Ceiba was turned into a slaughterhouse. In less than an hour, 108 bloodied bodies, 69 of them corpses, had been strewn across the prison installations. Sixty-one of the dead, at least half of whose bodies were completely burnt, were members of the Mara 18 youth gang; five were prisoners unconnected to any youth gangs; and three were female visitors, one of them a minor. All of the injured were mareros, as youth gang members are known in Honduras. The preliminary official version of events was that it was a pitched battle between mareros and prison guards. But no guards were killed or even injured.

Hours later, President Ricardo Maduro arrived at the scene promising that for “the first time” there would be an exhaustive investigation and that the full force of the law would be brought to bear upon those responsible for the massacre. He immediately named an investigating committee that over a month later has still not come up with any indication of who was responsible.

Chaos with Dantesque results

The media echoed the retooled official version that the killing grew out of a confrontation between mareros and other inmates. According to that version, the disturbance started when the marero leader known as “Boris” accused a non-marero inmate named Edgardo Coca of being responsible for a weapons search that inmates in charge of security inside the prison—known as rondines in prison slang—conducted with police help two days earlier. During this disarmament operation, a number of weapons had been confiscated from the youth gang members, who were confined to their cells in punishment. Once the confinement was over, “Boris” and his followers confronted Coca, and in the ensuing argument inmate José Alberto Almendárez, head of prison discipline, was murdered and Coca was seriously wounded. The official version then states that the youth gang members pulled out all kinds of weapons and once they had got their revenge they set fire to the prison and went around shooting off their firearms. The rondines had to respond and once the chaos subsided, we were left with a Dantesque scene in which the prison was strewn with burnt corpses and legs, arms and teeth of dismembered bodies.

“We want rehabilitation,
so give us a chance”

Enrique is a member of Mara 18 who survived the massacre. Under heavy guard in La Ceiba’s hospital, he recalled how “we came out of the cell in surrender, with our hands on our heads, and the police shot at us. We surrendered,” he reiterated, “and the police began to do this. They carried on shooting even when we fell down wounded. None of what they’re saying in the papers is true. Everyone will have to answer to God for their truths and lies.”
According to his version of events, “I was on the basketball court when the trouble started between our leaders and the rondines. The first shots rang out from cell 15, which was used as the security inmates’ office. It’s true that Boris and the other guys wounded the prisoners’ leader and killed the inmate responsible for discipline. But when the police appeared everyone went back to their cells and the corpse and the injured man were left lying on the floor. The police came and started shooting at us, and it was them, with the help of inmates, who set fire to a cell with over 40 of our guys inside. Luckily I wasn’t in there and I only got hit by this bullet that broke my arm.”
According to Enrique, the gang members were running in all directions and were shot at wherever they went. This version leads to the conclusion that the police had decided to wipe out all of the mareros and turned a blind eye as non-gang inmates took up machetes and knives and cut up the gang members inside the cell. All weapons used by both the mareros and the other inmates were already inside the prison, smuggled in thanks to the corruption of the police and those immediately responsible for running the prison.

“I’m telling society and the government that we want to be rehabilitated, to be given a chance,” stated Enrique. “We wanted to change, but unfortunately nobody supports us in this country; nobody gives us work if they see our tattoos. We have the right to a job, a house, clothes, a car, but nobody supports us. They forget that we have families, too, kids to feed. They treat us like we don’t belong to society and some people even pay others to go around shooting us, and things will never change like that. We’re not just ruled by violence, and now we want to stop. Please, we want to be given a chance by you, by society, by the President… by anyone.”

The frightening figures of
the “officialized” extermination

What happened in El Porvenir prison was particularly tragic, but was not the only event of its kind nor should it be seen as an isolated case, the last such occurrence, or even the most terrifying in the list of horrors. A couple of weeks earlier, seven members of the MS youth gang were “mysteriously” found dead in the San Pedro Sula prison. All of these deaths should be seen as part of a campaign of “social cleansing” that has spread to the country’s prisons, where it is the state’s sole responsibility to guarantee the rights of those deprived of their freedom and under its custody. The April 5 massacre appears to have been a horrific expression of the execution of minors belonging to youth gangs that is linked to Honduran police force structures. Such executions are part of a broader campaign that covers prisons, streets and marginalized neighborhoods where the poorest and most violent youth population is concentrated.

The figures are frightening. In 1998, 97 cases of extra-judicial execution linked to state structures were recorded. In 1999, the figure rose to 277. In 2000, it dropped to 207, but in 2001 the number jumped to 430 and in 2002 it hit 556. The figures unquestionably indicate a state policy being implemented in conspiracy with powerful business groups. The “extermination” of a specific social group—the mareros—has been “officialized” in urban streets and poor neighborhoods and now that it has spread to the country’s prisons it is further aggravating the problem of a penitentiary system that was already a ticking time bomb.

A series of tragic episodes

There have already been a number of tragic episodes in Honduras’ history of intra-prison violence, including fires that swept through the Santa Bárbara and Copán jails in western Honduras and partially destroyed the prison in Trujillo on the Caribbean coast; prison riots in the eastern city of Danlí and in Olanchito in the department of Yoro; and attempted rebellions in Tela and Gracias a Dios on the Caribbean coast. On November 12, 1999, 11 people died and 31 were injured during incidents at the San Pedro Sula penal center, and there were similar incidents at the end of 1998 in Tegucigalpa and in March 2000 in San Pedro Sula. And as mentioned above, seven mareros were found dead in two cells of the San Pedro Sula jail on March 21, 2003.

Honduras’ penitentiary system is without question the most severe and crudest expression of human rights violations. Rape, riots, murder, drug addiction and suicide abound in its deteriorated installations, where the absence of any fair application of justice turns the jails into overcrowded centers of social deformation and potential explosions of violence just waiting to be triggered. This was happening for years before culminating in the Porvenir massacre, and will inevitably continue happening unless urgent transformations are made.

Overcrowding: A massive
human rights violation

Although such prison-related problems are common in Central America, they have become mortally evident in Honduras. Central America’s prisons house some 200,000 prisoners, over 12,000 of whom are in Honduran jails, and the great majority of those—over 9,000—have not yet been tried or sentenced.

Honduras has the worst record in Central America regarding unsentenced prisoners and prison overcrowding. It is estimated that the authorities have between 30 and 50 prisoners locked up in cells originally designed for 5 inmates. Although the country’s 24 penal centers were originally built for 218 prisoners each, they now average 462.

The El Porvenir jail was built for 240 inmates; on the day of the massacre it was housing 571. Such overcrowding is
a significant factor in turning Honduran prisons into schools that reproduce violence, from which many prisoners graduate with perfect grades in crime, while others await their freedom in an absurd and prolonged vigil that only intensifies their trauma. Former Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares had this to say on the problem of overcrowding: “ We can assert, without fear of exaggeration, that we are facing the massive and systematic violation of the incarcerated population’s human rights.”

Cosmetic reforms

The fact that over 9,000 unsentenced prisoners are locked up is an expression of the national judicial system’s incapacity. President Maduro himself declared that justice in Honduras is suffering from “a worrying backlog.” But it is more than just a simple delay in decisions on cases brought to its attention, and such a situation deprives the accused of their constitutional rights.

The inertia in applying justice is further complicated by the fact that the judicial branch is politicized and therefore corrupt, yielding to the interests of those who control the country’s political and economic power. This makes it impossible to guarantee transparent, impartial and independent processes conducted with all due speed. In this context, many public defense lawyers have opted to be simple bail negotiators who do nothing to inform detainees about their cases and have neglected the Unsentenced Prisoner Law and other instruments designed to protect individuals deprived of their freedom.

In practice, the judicial reforms of recent years have amounted to little more than palliative and cosmetic retouches that give the superficial impression of improving a problem that is actually systemic. No reform has so far managed to push through any profound changes that would affect the infrahuman conditions in which thousands of people deprived of their freedom live. The Unsentenced Prisoner Law has been belatedly and barely applied, penitentiary cooperation and control boards have not functioned and the transfer of penal center management from the Secretariat of Government and Justice to the Secretariat of Security has not helped guarantee respect for inmates’ human rights.

A violent climate begets violence

Another serious problem in the Honduran prisons is the visible predominance of violence. The system itself is a violent one that provides an education in and feeds off of violence. It exercises and accumulates violence. Society’s violence is condensed inside the prisons.

This violence is not just a consequence of the overcrowding. It is also the result of the lack of political will to effectively apply the Law of Rehabilitation of Delinquents and its accompanying regulations. It is the result of the delays in justice, the corruption linked to arms and drug trafficking and the non-existence of educational and recreational programs to help rehabilitate prisoners and readapt them to post-jail life. The fact that thousands of people live piled on top of each other in such lamentable conditions is just another of the cruel, inhuman and degrading forms of treatment that violate human rights established in international norms supposedly recognized and ratified by the Honduran state.

The prevailing corruption in the country’s penal centers also generates a great deal of violence. In the operation carried out just before the Porvenir massacre, 42 daggers and 4 machetes were confiscated, yet during the bloody riot, some inmates were carrying firearms of different calibers and one even had a hand grenade. The jail’s authorities are clearly responsible for the arms trafficking inside the penal center. Do government spokespeople really expect us to believe that those authorities did not know or even suspect that arms and drugs were being moved inside the jail? Is it not suspicious that the confiscation of weapons was exclusively aimed at disarming members of Mara 18, 62 of whom died during the subsequent massacre?

Violence in prison,
violence in society

The violence in the prisons reflects the violence in society. Those who end up in jail are people who have been subjected to Honduran society’s economic, political and cultural violence on a daily basis. Poverty, which affects a very high percentage of Honduras population, and the inoperativeness of and lack of confidence in the judicial system have been producing a growing feeling of insecurity in the country.

The big media corporations use slogans to “interpret” the prevailing violence and insecurity in society, blaming it all on the youth gangs—or maras—and feeding their arguments with all kinds of perceptions. But the statistics don’t back them up: juvenile delinquency accounts for barely 5% of all infractions and crimes committed in the country.

According to the National Human Rights Commissioner’s January 2002 report, two thirds of all minors violently killed in the country did not belong to a youth gang or have a criminal record. The report suggests that they were killed because their clothes and appearance led them to be identified as gang members. It is difficult not to suspect that this long series of murders is actually part of a national “social cleansing” campaign promoted by different sectors of Honduran society with the backing of some business sector or sectors and the complicity or tolerance of government authorities.

The horrific events at El Porvenir indicate that this social cleansing campaign has spread to the country’s prisons. We can thus conclude that youth violence and the activities of serial killers have increased rather than decreased in response to the Zero Tolerance policy proclaimed by President Maduro. Such occurrences make Maduro’s promise as presidential candidate seem like a bad joke: “Insecurity should be fought with actions that create a culture of respect for the law, peace and non-violence, respect for the life and rights of others, tolerance for differences and beliefs that do not transgress morals, ethics, decent behavior and public order.”
There is still complete impunity surrounding the extra-judicial executions and everything suggests that it will continue. No effective investigations are taking place and the relevant judicial processes are being blocked by all kinds of obstacles. This pile of illegalities has attracted international attention and the United Nations sent a special reporter to Honduras to analyze the issue of extra-judicial and summary or arbitrary executions. The subsequent report confirmed the systematic violation of the right to life of thousands of Honduran children and adolescents.

And women prisoners?

The treatment of women prisoners, who account for 2% of the prison population, is a crude expression the discrimination and abuse suffered by all women in Honduran society. Women prisoners are the victims of a triple discrimination, with their condition as women compounding their incarceration and their suffering as poor, excluded people upon whom the penal system pours all of its hatred.

Female prisoners experience this triple discrimination in a number of ways: during pregnancy, in raising their children, in their lesser parental rights, in the rapes they suffer in prison and in their abandonment by their families. In many cases, prison officials offer women inmates “privileges” in return for sexual favors. Women are also subjected to particularly undignified physical searches during prison operations to find weapons or drugs.

The penitentiary legislation establishes that women should be separated from men and guarded by female personnel. But Honduran prisons ignore the law and women are abandoned to their fate, responsible for their own personal survival, even at times of special need, such as before, during and after childbirth.

Not worth the paper
they’re written on?

Honduras is a signatory to international treaties aimed at defending human rights, which include extensive and detailed regulations for the protection of those deprived of their liberty. What has actually been taking place, however, culminating in the massacre at El Porvenir prison, demonstrates that the state has no interest in honoring the international commitments it has assumed.

Although Honduras’ Supreme Court president has said that the overcrowding in El Porvenir “was not the main problem behind the killings,” it is obvious that it will be impossible to decrease the violence and guarantee minimal respect for the inmates’ human rights until the prison population is reduced. Most worrying of all, there are no signs of any reduction in the number of potential prisoners, as the current laws are aimed at penalizing almost everything and drastically increasing sentences. The delays in justice, increase in sentences, legalization of a life sentence and reduction of prisoner benefits are just some of the factors contributing to the overcrowding, unhealthy conditions and violence in the country’s prison system.

Honduran legislation establishes that prisoners are guaranteed an immediate trial as an expression of their right to freedom, are presumed innocent until proven guilty and have the right to a defense. The fact that three quarters of the prison population has not been sentenced is thus a clear indication that the state is systematically violating these basic defined rights of detainees.

The international treaties to which the Honduran state is a signatory establish that prisoners cannot be subjected to shortages or restrictions beyond those that are the result of being deprived of their freedom. The treatment of prisoners must not aggravate the suffering inherent in being deprived of their freedom and the penitentiary system should ensure that the differences between prison life and life outside are reduced to a minimum. The Honduran state is therefore responsible for not offering those deprived of their freedom the minimum conditions that would allow them to pay their debt to society in dignified conditions, as is their right as human beings.

How many more tragedies?

Anyone who visits a Honduran prison is immediately impressed by the physical deterioration of the installations, the climate of latent violence, the almost complete absence of medical attention, the shortage of training and re-education programs and the absolute lack of recreation spaces. It is as if they were passively waiting for more riots, fires and mass killings. There is an urgent need to transform the Honduran prison and justice systems. Will there have to be more tragedies like El Porvenir before society and the authorities finally turn their attention to the jails and their inmates?

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Our Place in the World

We Don’t Ask for Favors, We We Don’t Ask for Favors, We


Has ‘Social Cleansing’ of Gang Members Spread to Honduran Jails?

The Information Age: Understanding our World
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development