Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 294 | Enero 2006



Honduras’ Prison Massacres Reflect a Social and Political Crisis

What will the new government do about the justice system’s crisis, institutionalized impunity, the widespread power of organized crime and the rebellion of marginalized youth organized in youth gangs? All these expressions of social and political crisis are reflected in the macabre massacres occurring in the country’s prisons. What would President Manuel Zelaya like to do? What can he do?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Yet more prison violence broke out on the afternoon of January 5, 2006, this time at the Támara National Penitentiary, where thirteen prisoners were killed and one critically wounded. Támara is a rural community a dozen kilometers north of the capital city Tegucigalpa that was chosen to host Honduras’ most important penal institution after Hurricane Mitch destroyed the old penitentiary in the city center in 1998.

Following the bloody events, other prisoners were moved out of their cells and a police detachment ringed the penitentiary, fearing a riot and renewed violence. According to the penitentiary authorities, the probable cause of the deaths was a power struggle including a dispute over the control of drug sales within the prison. One high-level prison official declared that those killed were a select group of the country’s most dangerous criminals serving time for rape, homicide, robbery and drug dealing.

The report issued by doctors from the Public Ministry’s Forensic Medicine Department who conducted the autopsy on the three bodies was never made public. On January 6, outgoing President Ricardo Maduro ordered the suspension of Police Inspector Marvin Rajo, the prison’s director, and the dismissal of Domingo García, its security chief, but failed to reveal whether his decision was based on an in-depth investigation of the events, or why only these two officials were sanctioned. The President also asked the Congress to fast track the penitentiary system bill and announced he would name a commission to take over the penitentiary system’s administration, at least temporarily. Was this an effort to gloss over his government’s responsibilities?

The reality is that the crisis in the prison world involves various institutions and individuals linked in an intricate knot of relations that put in doubt the ethics of the entire judicial system and even the state’s legitimacy in this sphere. Independent human rights figures and organizations that have analyzed this crisis have pointed to institutionalized corruption and impunity, the partiality of the institutions of justice and the establishment of a policy of “institutional terrorism.”

Previous bloody events

In the past seven years nearly two hundred prisoners have died violent deaths and dozens more were wounded in a series of events inside penal institutions in three of the country’s most important cities. The first massacre occurred in November 1999, when 11 young gang members were killed and 31 wounded in a gang fight with sharp instruments in the San Pedro Sula penitentiary. The second, which was never explained, occurred in March 2003, when 7 members of the youth gang known as Mara MS, died of poisoning. The third took place in April 2003 at the El Porvenir prison farm, where 69 prisoners died and 39 were hurt. Although this incident was never cleared up, there are indications that it was premeditated. The fourth and largest, also never explained, occurred in May 2004, when 105 youth gang members died and 9 were injured in a fire in their prison wing. All belonged to the same gang: Mara 18.

According to the National Human Rights Commissioner’s annual report, there were 89 deaths in penal centers in 2003 and 155 deaths and 5 disappearances in 2004. In 2005, there were 13 deaths as of May 9 in the National Penitentiary alone, site of the latest massacre.

The toll of bloody events in the prisons is even heavier when one adds disturbances and events related to the appalling infrastructure conditions in most prisons. These include fires that razed the prisons of Santa Barbara and Copán and partially destroyed the one in Trujillo; riots in the Danlí and Olanchito jails and attempted rebellion in those of Tela and Gracias a Dios; similar incidents in late 1998 in Tegucigalpa and in 2000 in San Pedro Sula; a conflict that left 1 dead and 11 injured in the Támara Penitentiary in July 2003; 2 deaths and 9 injuries in the Tela prison center in March 2003; and the deaths reported in the Choluteca penal center in May 2002.

A common characteristic of all these incidents is that judicial, police and investigation officials have failed to provide sufficient information on the events or to identify, detain or try either their material or intellectual authors. The official version is almost always the same: blame the prisoners for their internal rivalries and for being youth gang members. All the massacres, including the latest one in Támara, follow similar patterns: weapons of all kinds in the prisoners’ hands, drug trafficking within the prison and the complicity of penitentiary personnel with the prisoners.

The Prisons are in profound crisis

An investigation by the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team (ERIC-SJ) of the Central American Social Apostolate of the Society of Jesus, showed that 24 of the penitentiary system’s penal centers were facing enormous difficulties and substantial limitations and were mired in a profound operational crisis and loss of legitimacy. Our report stressed that the country’s prisons were overcrowded; the penal system was ineffective; the prisons were deteriorated; prisoners were being mistreated; there was drug dealing; the provision of health services, food, education and recreation were deficient; and violence and corruption prevailed. These results were presented last October to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington.

The day after the January 2006 massacre, the IACHR issued a communiqué stating that Honduras’ detention centers still suffer the same weaknesses that ERIC-SJ, other Honduran civil society organizations and IACHR itself have pointed out, and that the Honduran state has not adopted any of the corrective measures suggested.

Reflection of a national crisis
that dates back to the eighties

The prison crisis reflects the nation’s political crisis. Since the transition to democracy in 1980, the country’s legal and political system has been weakened by the lack of a strict separation among the three branches of state. The executive predominates over the legislative and judicial branches, substantially eroding their autonomy and reflecting the elitist, caudillo-based structural hierarchy dominating Honduran society and the inequality in its social relations.

The judicial branch has been embroiled in a crisis of legitimacy since the eighties, originally due to its inability to assimilate into the prevailing judicial order grassroots protests and the radicalization of certain political organizations intent on deep-seated social transformations. In that decade, the judicial branch was supplanted by military power through the application of the National Security Doctrine, which was mainly responsible for the disappearance of some two hundred people for political reasons.

This doctrine’s repressive policies were concretized into the Anti-Terrorist Law, which ignored constitutional guarantees and replaced the role of judicial authorities. The human rights violations in those years were justified by the “need to extirpate the revolutionary cancer,” just as extermination of the “maras,” or youth gangs, is currently perceived as an act of “social cleansing.”

The Anti-Mara Law is similar
to the Anti-Terrorist Law

The old Anti-Terrorist Law and the current Anti-Mara Law follow the same mold of identifying a “social enemy” and ideologizing the struggle against it, in turn justifying the investment of state resources to strengthen the institutions responsible for heading up the activities against this “enemy.”

In the eighties the Anti-Terrorist Law justified the “militarization” of society, with the military leading the fight ainst “communism” and “revolution.” The Anti-Mara Law helps strengthen the profile of the police institutions and the Security Secretariat and negatively publicizes the penitentiary system.

In the eighties, the notorious General Gustavo Adolfo Álvarez Martínez headed up the war on “communism.” In President Maduro’s administration, Security Minister Óscar Álvarez assumed the lead role in the war against the “maras” together with then president of Congress Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who lost the recent elections as the National Party’s presidential candidate.

Human rights defense organizations denounced the existence of clandestine jails that concealed the state’s role in the disappearances of the eighties. The current penitentiary system isn’t clandestine, but it still earns very negative
marks for the illicit acts committed within its walls.

The Anti-Terrorist and Anti-Mara Laws also share similar features as the state’s response to a social crisis. Both are based on the use of force under the state’s institutional control, generating social tension, fear, concern and distrust among the population. Another common feature is the lack of social and political consensus in their approval and application. As a result, both laws only added to the crisis rather than helping respond to a social demand.

The judicial branch is
rotted by impunity

The Honduran military’s role during the Central American crisis of the eighties undermined the justice system, helped establish the basis for impunity, supplanted the rule of law and subordinated the judicial branch. In the nineties, this system of impunity was improved and used frequently by corrupt white-collar administrators who came to government with new criteria for running the economy and society. The institutional corruption scandals weakened the judicial branch even more and it has proved incapable of putting any white-collar criminals behind bars or cleaning up public administration in the slightest.

Despite the moderate reforms introduced to correct its course, the judicial branch entered the new century with greater weaknesses and vulnerabilities than the many observed in the other branches of state. The result has been a widespread lack of confidence in the country’s judicial institutions and officials and even the penitentiary system. This erosion of the judicial branch is one of the main causes of the national penitentiary system’s current crisis.

Bipartite interests are
the serpent’s egg

The judicial branch’s weaknesses are also a result of the characteristics assumed by the transition to democracy. Following the armed forces’ 1989 decision to abandon power, the return to constitutional order was left in the hands of the Liberal and National parties, Honduras’ two big traditional political forces. The two also assumed representation of the corporate groups and powerful private interests, which had sizable influence in the upper echelons of both parties. The judicial branch became a captive of these interests, which were active in finance, industry, commerce and natural resource exploitation, to mention only the legally recognized economic spheres.

Lacking ethics and morality, these two traditional parties laid claim to the judicial branch, conditioning its functioning and the decisions it handed down by putting it at the service of the corporate interests of the business class and its representatives embedded in the pinnacles of party power. Until 2000, Supreme Court justices were directly named by the party leaders represented in Congress, with the sole requisite of defending their interests. In December 2000, Congress approved a decree establishing the appointment of a Nominating Board to select Supreme Court candidates, but it is unimaginable that the bipartite political system has ceased interfering in the judicial branch. The manipulation has been so strong and so prolonged that it has determined the perverse characteristics assumed by the penitentiary system in the past two decades, a hidden reality that explains the massacres taking place in the nation’s prisons.

Poverty, migration and maras
are neoliberalism’s bitter fruit

The transition to democracy coincided with the arrival of neoliberalism, formally installed as the social paradigm in the early nineties with decrees and economic structural adjustments. But the paradigm of neoliberal society goes well beyond strictly economic objectives. It determines the vision its defenders have of the world, society and culture. It is an ideology favoring material interests, profits and the rampant exploitation of resources to benefit the few with the corporate capacity to exploit them to the last drop.

By favoring only elite interests and converting everything into merchandise, neoliberalism promotes individualism, generating all manner of perfidious acts against the common good, the devaluing of human life and growing social inequity. The application of neoliberalism’s economic objectives in Honduras has resulted in an excessive concentration
of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller elite, a massification of poverty and a growth of the beltways of poverty
ringing the country’s cities and larger towns.

Another repercussion is the growing flow of migration to the United States. Among other effects, migration contributes to the transnationalizing of youth violence, concretized in Honduras in its most virulent manifestation: the maras. The marginalized urban youth is one of the social strata most affected by neoliberalism’s consequences, and its most radicalized members have mounted a regressive rebellion organized through these gangs.

Repression and prison
has been the only response

The state’s response, especially during the government of Ricardo Maduro (2002-2006), was to declare open war on this fragment of marginal urban youth. During the last legislature, the judicial branch and its authorities set about criminalizing poverty and turning a blind eye to white-collar criminality. As a result, the prisons quickly filled with young gang members and the penitentiary system soon collapsed under this massive increase in the population deprived of liberty.

Honduras’ prisons mirror the country’s extreme social inequity. Almost all the prisoners are poor and from marginalized urban and rural sectors, with only a tiny minority from the higher or mid-level social strata.

As in the eighties with the grassroots protests, the state’s response to today’s social crisis has been repression and imprisonment. And it would appear that another feature is also being repeated: physical annihilation. Although anti-mara champion José Porfirio Lobo didn’t dare come out in favor of the death penalty during his unsuccessful presidential campaign, the prison massacres leave the impression that it’s already being applied in the penitentiary system, and with ever less reaction from the population.

Stupor, indifference and applause

The perverse mechanism sparking the killings in Honduras’ jails has managed to space out its actions to “prepare” national opinion psychologically for this butchery. The shock produced by the first case was followed by alarm at the possibility of a recurrence of such bloody events. By the time of the Támara massacre, however, no such commotion was observed. The only emotion perceivable now is fear that it could trigger a wave of revenge that would increase the spiral of violence.

Hondurans with less discernment and less access to information on the issue believe that the massacre of young delinquents favors social peace and increases public safety. Viewing events from that angle, they support a hard-line policy against the youth gangs. Other sectors appear indifferent and incapable of imagining the consequences these events could have on Honduras’ still-fragile democracy (a return to dictatorial authoritarianism), human rights (generalized violence), justice and, in the end, the entire judicial and political system.

The media are helping erode social sensitivity to crime. They splash news related to the massacres of prisoners across the front pages, but provide no context or follow-up. This turns death into merchandise for sale.

Macabre clues and total negligence

Suspended Támara penitentiary director Marvin Rajo had previously described the connections between the penitentiary system and the outside world: “There are prisoners of all sorts in Támara, including people with influence on the outside. There are prisoners who are in touch with important people in all spheres—military, governmental, civilian and police. But as long as they act within the law, I don’t think there’ll be any problem.”

According to Alfredo Landaverde, former secretary of the National Anti-Drug Trafficking Council, “the authorities know who’s running the organized crime and criminal bands in the country.” Rajo, still a police inspector and penitentiary system administrator, now says that “what happened in Támara had to do with organized crime. And the rapid police intervention prevented more deaths, because if the grenades [that the prisoners had in their power] had gone off,
we’d be talking about 50 or 60 deaths.”

Some keys to the crises affecting the country’s judicial and penal system have become public thanks to reports
in some of the media that occasionally reveal the seriousness of the problem and the state’s indifferent and negligent behavior toward the enormous power organized crime is acquiring in Honduras. In any country with a more evolved political culture and authentic democratic institutions, the massacres would have led to the resignation of the security chief and other judicial and penal system officials. But not in Honduras, where immorality and lack of ethics go hand in hand.

Óscar Álvarez resigned as head of the Security Secretariat shortly before the elections on November 27, 2005, but only because he was running for legislative office on the National Party ticket. When he learned that his party had been voted out of office, he suddenly claimed he was receiving death threats from organized crime and the outgoing government appointed him to a diplomatic post in Honduras’ embassy in the United States. Some human rights defense organizations publicly protested this appointment, arguing that Álvarez was receiving a US$6,000 a month “grant” at taxpayers’ expense.

Will there be more massacres
with the new government?

In response to the Támara massacre, President-elect Manuel Zelaya said only that the Security Secretariat “will no longer run the penal centers,” which could be interpreted as suggesting that the cause of the penitentiary system’s crisis resided in the Secretariat as headed by anti-youth gang champion Óscar Álvarez. It could also be deduced from the new President’s declaration that he believes—or wants us to believe—that a problem of this magnitude can be solved merely by transferring functions from one institution to another.

Can any changes be expected from Zelaya’s new government in this murky and worrisome terrain, which is besmirching Honduras’ fragile institutionality? It won’t be easy for the new President to deal with such a huge and complex challenge, even with the best will in the world. Given how long the institutional deterioration has been going on, we can expect more killings, more threats and more macabre warnings from the organized crime cartels challenging the new government to dare govern without them.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

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