El Faro published this chronicle in Spanish in May 2014 and translated it following the death of 46 women in the Támara Penitentiary on June 20, 2023.
Everyone knows what happened at El Porvenir Prison, and everyone, especially Honduras, seems to have forgotten it: At 9:10 a.m. on April 5, 2003, just 10 minutes after the riot broke out, when police and soldiers entered the prison yard with their long guns and pistols drawn, in an alleged effort to bring order, only five people had died. Two hours later, 68 bodies were piled up in a prison with only twenty cells.
* * *
18th Street had started the battle. For months, the gang and the paisas —prisoners with no gang affiliation— had respected a non-aggression agreement. But despite being the eternal protagonists of the front page, despite embodying every evil and inspiring every fear, and despite their notorious talent for violence, in Honduras history knows that, when it comes to picking fights with other criminal groups or security forces, the gangs always lose. This, at least, was the certainty that kept the peace at El Porvenir, a prison in the city of La Ceiba, on the country’s north coast. The paisas outnumbered the dieciocheros, or 18th Street gang members, four to one, even counting new arrivals. And it was the paisas who made up the rondines — the prisoners who, for years, had been deputized by the authorities to patrol the prison and oversee order in the yards; the men who, with the blow of a club or the sweep of a machete, imposed law inside the walls of the compound.
It was 2003, and the government’s “Zero Tolerance” gang crackdown, promoted by the administration of President Ricardo Maduro, was in full swing. If gang members were feared and despised in the streets, and the police —to much public applause— had taken off their gloves, in the prisons the gang members were treated like wild and dangerous animals. In El Porvenir, authorities had given the rondines keys to cells 2 and 6, which held the 18th Street inmates. The paisas, led by their “general coordinator,” Edgardo Coca, decided who came in, who went out, and when. These deputized prisoner-guards conducted constant searches —up to three times a day— and enforced collective punishments on the captive gang members.
But on March 7 the violent peace at El Porvenir began to crack when Mario Cerrato, alias “El Boris,” arrived at the prison in the company of 29 other dieciocheros. They had all been transferred from Támara Penitentiary, in theory to avoid conflicts with other inmates. In theory, to avoid more deaths.
Once at El Porvenir, it didn’t take El Boris long to see, with indignation, how his barrio had bowed its head under the abuses of the paisas. Almost immediately, he conjured up a new series of unwritten rules for the gang, ousting the leader of the dieciocheros in the prison, Edwin Calona, alias “El Danger.” El Boris wanted a war. He bribed a guard to give him a weapon, and spent the next four weeks organizing his plan of attack. On Saturday, April 5, El Boris grabbed his newly acquired gun and went to the cell where Coca and the rest of the leaders of the rondines were gathered. El Danger was with him, along with eight other dieciocheros armed with sticks and knives. The first shot fired by El Boris killed José Alberto Almendárez, the deputy leader of the rondines. In the initial confusion, gang members managed to shoot or hack to death with machetes four of the paisa prisoners. Many of the rondines managed to flee the scene, seeking refuge in the bathrooms of their cells. Others, the more veteran inmates, ran to grab their weapons and fight back against El Boris.
All witnesses agree that, 10 minutes after the first shot, when the police guarding the prison and the soldiers sent in as reinforcements entered the yard, they stormed in guns blazing, with the obvious intention of protecting the paisas and killing any gang members they found in their way. Suddenly, the rondines, guards, and soldiers had formed a single battalion, driving most of the dieciocheros back to their cells. The carnage was about to begin.
One of the rondines padlocked cell number six, where 25 people had taken refuge from the violence, including a woman and a little girl who had come to the prison to visit family shortly before the shooting. He piled cardboard and mattresses in front of the steel-grate door, doused the pile with gasoline and set it on fire. The police officers watching him do it didn’t lift a finger.
A few meters away, police, soldiers, and rondines laid siege to cell number two, opening fire at a group of pandilleros who had taken refuge there, while shouting at them to surrender. For a brief moment, the crossfire ceased: the dieciocheros surrendered and threw their weapons into the courtyard, but the first men who dared come out with their hands up were riddled with bullets. One died on the spot. Those who were still alive, wounded and writhing on the ground, were beaten and stabbed to death by the rondines. The men who stayed in the cell suffered a more brutal death: when the smoke and flames from cell 2 passed to cell 6, forcing them to come out, they were commanded to lie face down on the ground. In that position, they were executed. After being sliced and stabbed to shreds, they were finished off with a hail of bullets. The same bullets that, later on, would allow Arabeska Sánchez to reconstruct what had happened.
Searching every corner of the prison, and backed by the guns of state agents, the paisa prisoners consummated their campaign of revenge. Police and soldiers finished off the wounded, soldiers watched in silence while patrols of prisoners savaged the already mutilated corpses.
The commander in charge of the operation, Deputy Commissioner Carlos Esteban Henríquez, called the killing off at around 11 a.m., when he realized that a cameraman was recording the scene from the ladder of a fire truck that had just arrived to put out the blaze. Only then did he order his men to stop shooting, and to transport the wounded to the hospital. In his first statement to reporters, a spokesman from the Ministry of Defense, Deputy Commissioner Leonel Sauceda, said that of all the prison incidents caused by gang members in recent months, this had been “the most serious.”
Twenty-three of the 68 victims had gunshot wounds. Sixty of them were 18th Street gang members. Five of them bled to death. One received 20 machete blows to the head. In cell number six, 25 people died of asphyxiation or burns. One body was incinerated to the point that it was impossible to identity. The bodies of the dead were taken to the city of San Pedro Sula for autopsy. They arrived to the morgue like rotting waste, having deteriorated during the four-hour trip in unrefrigerated trucks.
President Ricardo Maduro, Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez, and Vice Minister of Security Armando Calidonio arrived at the prison at 4 p.m., dead bodies still lying on the ground. Within minutes, a member of the president’s entourage had ordered the firemen to clean up the scene of slaughter, so that the surviving prisoners, who had been evacuated after the ceasefire, could return to their cells as quickly as possible. The officials evidently did not care —and some still suggest that this was precisely the purpose of the order— that washing the yard with water would erase any evidence, turning a crime scene into a clean slate.
* * *
The massacre at El Porvenir was the first of three major killings in Honduran prisons in the past decade. One year later, in 2004, the burning of the Mara Salvatrucha block at San Pedro Sula prison would leave 107 people dead. In February 2012, in an especially macabre escalation of an already bloody trend, another fire consumed nearly the entire Comayagua prison farm, killing 361 men and one woman, who was visiting when the blaze broke out. Half a thousand dead in a total of three days, and to the applause of a good part of Honduran society, which tends to welcome the deaths of prisoners as a necessary and restorative purge. But the sawtooth spikes these mass killings make on the official graphs of prison deaths in Honduras are just one part of a much bigger picture. It is in the valleys of near-daily deaths and the state’s refusal to assume responsibility for them that the full brutality of prison policy in Honduras becomes clear.
Newspaper archives and the testimonies of men and women who survive behind bars recount numerous extraordinary cases: in March 2008, a group of former gang members incarcerated at San Pedro Sula prison was transferred to Támara prison after a riot broke out in which nine people died. Booked into the National Penitentiary in the middle of the night, authorities locked them in a unit that held paisa prisoners, knowing for certain the new arrivals would end up dead. Which they did. At dawn, 18 ex-pandilleros had been stabbed to death.
In mid-2009, the courts granted precautionary measures to protect a prisoner convicted of homicide whose life would be in danger if he were to be placed in the same sector as his victim’s brother, who was serving a sentence in the same prison. Despite receiving and reading the official court orders explicitly commanding that the inmate be assigned to a different area of the prison, the warden sent him to his death. That warden has since been charged with manslaughter. In 2011, another prison director kept an epileptic inmate shackled by his hands and feet in a small isolation cell at the base of a guard tower, refusing to allow clinic staff to give him his medication. The man died, and no one was held accountable. Armed confrontations between inmates are constant. On March 29, 2012, a group of inmates at San Pedro Sula prison overthrew the general coordinator of their unit and established a new order inside the prison. After several hours of shooting, at least 14 inmates had died.
For over a decade, reports from various international human rights organizations, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Right or the United Nations, have regularly denounced the cruel and inhumane conditions in Honduran prisons and the constant threats to the lives and safety of those inside. And nothing has changed. In the last three years alone, more than 450 people have suffered violent deaths in Honduran prisons. On average, one person dies in custody every two and a half days. Shot to death by guards, riddled with bullets by other inmates, pierced with grenade shrapnel, strangled, stabbed, lynched, bludgeoned, impaled, decapitated, burnt alive…
It is impossible to obtain complete and systematized records on violent deaths in Honduran prisons for recent decades, but official government mortality data, which, conveniently, fails to separate deaths by homicide and deaths from other causes, cannot obscure the obvious: between 2003 and 2012, there were, on average, 106 deaths in prison per year, the vast majority caused by violent acts. If Honduras is the most violent country in the world, with a murder rate in 2013 of 79 deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants, and an overall mortality rate of 4.78 per one thousand inhabitants, according to data from 2012, its prisons are the most dangerous place in the country, with an average mortality rate over the past decade that exceeds 7.8 per one thousand incarcerated people.
Honduran authorities often suggest that prison fires are exceptional and unpredictable, that killing prisoners as they run away is justified, and that riots or acts of revenge among inmates are haphazard and random. That the savage logic of prisoners — the implication seems to be — is simply incomprehensible. This is an institutional lie. In prisons, death always has an explanation. And the massacres at El Porvenir, San Pedro Sula, and Comayagua were not isolated events, but spikes in the murderous normality of the system. Sometimes the state kills directly, through the officials who steward its prisons; other times, it facilitates the execution of inmates through a tacit system of extrajudicial death sentences.
* * *
Ten years later, sitting at a bar in Tegucigalpa’s hotel district, Arabeska Sánchez reflects on the massacre. She is noticeably grateful that someone still cares to ask about those who died, after so much time has passed, and in a country that so shamelessly applauds this and other forms of social cleansing.
The object that landed on Arabeska Sánchez’s desk did not look like a bullet. The mangled little fragment of metal could have been anything. Even assuming it was some kind of projectile, it would have been impossible to trace it to the weapon that produced it. Sánchez, short and stocky, furrowed her brow and squinted her small eyes from behind her glasses, struggling to see some clue in that splinter of lead, then eventually giving up. She had seen the scenes of the massacre at El Porvenir on television, and her desire to help identify the perpetrators was gnawing at her. But of the hundreds of bullets and shell casings collected by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the aftermath of the slaughter, her small shard held was the least useful. Feeling uneasy, she returned the object to the evidence bag and wrote a note in her report: “The fragment has lost mass and individualizing and classifying characteristics. It has no analytical value.”
Now, sitting in the less noisy part of a bar that has tried to conjure a bohemian feel, Arabeska Sánchez grips a glass of Seven Up and ice as she recounts her failed attempt to decipher the secrets of that shard of lead. My attempts to offer her a beer or join me for a shot of gin have been futile: she has to get up early tomorrow, she says.
“No alcohol when there’s work to do.”
Sánchez is —and she shows it with every sentence and every gesture— a calm and composed woman. Tough, aggressive in her opinions, but cool and collected. Perhaps only a person anchored in such equanimity could witness firsthand the death that Honduras endures and still believe that the country might somehow be saved from itself.
That April, in 2003, as if taking pity on her frustration, chance would have it that Sánchez’s disappointed evidence report would open a promising new path for her role in the investigation. Given that she was the only member of the forensics lab who would not be presenting ballistics evidence at trial, the prosecutor assigned her a new task: reconstruct as accurately as possible, using the reports of her colleagues, what happened that day at the El Porvenir prison farm. Without asking for it, Sánchez had been tasked with proving how the Honduran state, in complicity with a gang of assassins, had brutally murdered six dozen human beings in the span of two hours.
Sánchez says that even more than the massacre itself, as brutal as it was, it was the long and fraught trial to follow that revealed the true depths of the Honduran government’s contempt for the lives of its prisoners.
“If you want to know what the Honduran prison system is like —even now, ten years later— you should review the El Porvenir case file,” she says. “It was the first time the system’s flaws were fully exposed.”
Arabeska doesn’t say it outright, but she suggests, in so many words, that the story of El Porvenir is not a story about the past. Still, to this day, the most violent country in the world maintains, as an unofficial policy of state, the systematic extermination of its prisoners.
* * *
The trial for the El Porvenir massacre began in March 2008 and was a battle between the Honduran state and itself. While the Public Prosecutor’s Office pushed for an explanation of the 68 deaths, the Executive put every effort into a cover-up. During the trial, prosecutors revealed that prison system officials had altered their incident logs to change the time that the killing began. They also proved that the police had falsified incident reports to make it appear that the alarm had gone off late, and that the police operation had lasted one hour less than it really did. They proved that the police chief in charge of the operation had lied in his report, falsely claiming that his agents had been shot at by gang members, and had only returned fire in self-defense. The Secretariat of Security paid for the guards’ defense attorneys, hired ballistics experts, and even recruited investigators from the Public Prosecutor’s Office to argue against the evidence presented by the prosecution.
With a hardened expression, Arabeska Sánchez explains the prosection’s sense of disadvantage over the course of the long trial, which lasted 159 days, just over five months.
“There were four of us: two prosecutors, one medical examiner, and me, and we were up against a team of 60 defense staff, just a massive number of people. We felt this terrible weight bearing down on us
“Did you face any threats?”
“There were suspicious vehicles that would follow the car our team used in La Ceiba, so we asked for a security vehicle to escort us every time we would drive from the hotel to the courthouse. After every session, we had to lock ourselves in [our hotel rooms]. A young man was shot in the parking lot of my hotel, and there were also shots fired in front of the hotel where the prosecutor was staying.”
The courtrooms in La Ceiba were too small for a trial that size, so the proceedings took place at the local bar association headquarters. Every day, police formed a cordon around the building where the accused —mostly police, charged with the murder of prisoners— stood trial. The official reason provided for this daily ritual was security, but for the prosecution, it felt like just another form of intimidation. During the hearings, the judges requested that prosecutors not go to the restroom during recess, to avoid exposing themselves to possible attacks. A few days into trial, a bomb threat forced the entire building to be evacuated and the hearing was suspended for several hours.
For Arabeska Sánchez and her team, the entire city of La Ceiba was now hostile territory. While the defendants and their friends and family enjoyed evening barbeque parties, the four members of the prosecution ate alone, locked in their hotel rooms. No one wanted to be seen with them, and even a luxury as simple as a quiet walk through the coastal town was out of the question.
The evidence and testimonies presented at trial were overwhelming. Prosecutors presented television footage that showed agents teaming up with rondines to beat gang members as they lay dying on the floor. Ballistics reports confirmed that most of the victims had been killed by gunfire, from weapons registered to police and soldiers. The reports also revealed that the police had failed to turn over some of the murder weapons to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The evidence had simply disappeared.
Twenty-one of the 33 defendants were convicted and received sentences ranging from 3 to 1,035 years in prison. The police commander in charge of the operation, Carlos Esteban Henríquez, was found guilty by omission on 19 counts of murder and sentenced to 17 years. The prison director, Danny Alexander Rodríguez Valladares, did not face any charges, because on the day of the massacre, while not on leave, he did not show up for work. In the year following the atrocity, he was transferred several times, serving as the director of Santa Barbara and Danlí prisons. In 2012, as if mockery were an official policy of the Honduran state, he was sent to replace the director of Comayagua prison, who had been suspended in the aftermath of the fire that killed 361 people.
Since June 2013, Rodríguez Valladares has served as the director of the San Pedro Sula prison, the second largest penitentiary in the country. There, just like he did a decade earlier at El Porvenir, he shares power with a team of armed rondines, who operate as de facto guards, adjudicating the life and death of the other inmates. As if the past had left no impression. As if the deaths of 68 people were just some marginal footnote in the annals of an institution — a minor anecdote in the career of an official.
* * *
Night quiets everything but the river, whose roar is like a warning that here, on this ground, where people once laughed and danced to the music of an orchestra, no one should ever build anything again. For decades, corruption had kept La Mora —the wing for rich prisoners at the old Central Penitentiary of Honduras— a happy place for the prisoners who could afford it. While common inmates were locked up in another area of the compound, malnourished and attending reading classes, in the cells of La Mora inmates gambled at casino tables and watched evening boxing matches in the open courtyard, with contenders invited from outside.
Hurricane Mitch swept all that away. On October 30, 1998, the waters of the Chiquito River transformed into the belligerent arms of a rampaging giant, reducing La Mora to a wasteland. All that remained of the prison were ruins, imbued with a certain solemnity. The only part of La Mora to survive was a watchtower, strangely balanced on its chewed-apart base.
In the crumbling foundation of that lone guard tower, in the dark of night, Dionisio Sánchez casually arranges his stacks of cardboard and bags of tin cans, and other piles of scrap. The air in Tegucigalpa is clean, like between rains. Dionisio is small and wears a perpetual smirk. When he speaks, he stretches his surprised eyes even wider, as if, for him, conversation were some eccentric act, a forgotten and rediscovered pleasure.
Dionisio made his home here, under a makeshift roof, in 1999, a few months after the hurricane hit. He makes a living selling garbage and carrying bags of various goods to market. He has never set foot in a prison, but he knows exactly what happened here the day La Mora was swept away by the storm:
“People say that, when they tried escape, they killed them. The prisoners tried to leave, and they were killed.”
That Thursday, October 29, with the entire city of Tegucigalpa in a state of alarm and the river on the verge of overflowing, a rumor spread among the inmates at the Central Penitentiary that no one was coming to evacuate them. In the midst of the emergency, as the prison walls swayed, struggling to hold back the river, and water began flooding in, dozens of inmates of La Mora began scaling the walls, one after the other, propelled by the fear that this was their only chance to escape and survive. The guards shot to kill. Some 30 prisoners were swept away by the river, wounded or already dead. Their bodies were never found.
Years later, in an article apparently intended as endearing, the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo wrote about the ghosts of guards and dead prisoners haunting the ruins of the old prison in Tegucigalpa. As if the black legend of a country that kills its prisoners was little more than a children’s game of frights and horrors. As if murders in Honduran prisons were a thing of the past, or of other worlds.
Tonight, in the middle of what was once the La Mora prison yard, a few meters from the crumbling guard tower, Dionisio Sánchez looks like one of those ghosts. He knows that people were killed from that tower, because a friend who was serving a sentence in La Mora at the time told him about it, and had watched with his own eyes as his fellow prisoners were gunned down and then swept away in the swirling water. A rat the size of a cat crosses the property, headed in Dionisio’s direction, then slinks into his pile of cardboard.
* * *
The Doctor of Támara prison is one of the ghosts of the old Central Penitentiary, where he worked during the 90s and was condemned to witness the dead bodies of prisoners pass perpetually through his clinic — a trauma that has stayed with him to this day. “Here, most deaths are caused by gunshot,” he says, keeping a cold posture, his arms on his desk and his back straight, making no gestures, as though he’s repeated the phrase a thousand times and it never changes anything.
The Marco Aurelio Soto National Penitentiary, popularly known as Támara prison, was once the celebrated cornerstone of a new and improved Honduran penal system. When Hurricane Mitch knocked down the walls of the old Central Penitentiary, this model prison, designed to hold some 1,800 inmates, was barely being completed. In line with the latest prison reform initiative, which aimed to create a progressive correctional system focused on rehabilitation and social reinsertion, the new facility would classify prisoners by criminological profile and type of crime. At first, the facility housed just 300 inmates, with plans to gradually expand capacity under the government’s new criteria.
The hurricane swept those plans away too. On the afternoon of October 30, the prisoners at the Central Penitentiary were finally evacuated and temporarily relocated to the basement of the National Stadium, some 200 meters away, on the other side of the river but at a safe distance from the floodwater. After a few weeks, all 3,500 prisoners who were once packed into the overcrowded Central Penitentiary, were transferred to the new prison in Támara where they were again crammed into a space designed to hold half as many. Unsurprisingly, there was little criteria other than haste in the assigning of cells. No distinction between types of crimes, between convictions or pending sentences, and no classification based on levels of danger. Even today, the cellblocks dividing Támara prison are simply called “Processed 1 and 2” and “Sentenced 1 and 2.” A falsehood.
A few days later, bodies began appearing in the sewers of the National Stadium. Prisoners had settled scores through bloody violence during their temporary stay at the Central Penitentiary, and they carried this decades-old carceral tradition of death and corruption with them to their new home.
The Doctor was there during the move from the Central Penitentiary to Támara, and has worked at the prison for the last 15 years. He is in his late 60s now. His slicked back hair, clean shaven face, and impeccable shirt, which he wears under a white overcoat, are a stark contrast with the crumbling, run-down clinic where he works, with no x-ray equipment and hardly any beds among the cobwebs and corridors with busted-out windows. Like the rest of the doctors and nurses at Támara, he brings his own scalpels, scissors, stethoscope, and gloves from home every day.
The prison is an impoverished city, overpopulated with 4,000 people and patrolled by guards who provide the prisoners a uniform diet of beans and rice three times a day. The water at Támara prison — on the days there is water — is not potable. The Doctor says that they treat it to eliminate some germs and parasites, but that it’s by no means drinkable. Nevertheless, they drink it. Overcrowded, malnourished, mistreated, constantly sick. And in the summer months, three quarters of the prisoners have scabies.
“There was a time, like at the end of the 80’s, because of AIDS, when yeah, most of the deaths were from disease. But for the past 15 or 20 years, it’s not disease that kills people in the prisons here,” The Doctor says. “First, deaths by stab wounds increased, but not now; now it’s mostly by firearms.”
In Támara, the largest prison in the country and the closest to the capital, acquiring a .38 revolver will run an inmate about 25,000 Lempiras, or $1,300, and authorities charge about 45,000 Lempiras, or $2,300, for a 9mm pistol. Grenades and AK-47s have higher price tags, but people still pay them. Like all good peddlers of death, the police guarding the prison accept bribes from anyone —paisa or pandillero— and happily supply them with the weapons they need to kill each other. In a vicious circle perfected over time, the prison mafias fuel corruption. Corruption, in turn, strengthens the power of the mafias.
“Look, in all the prisons there’s a de facto authority that’s higher than the director,” The Doctor says. “Here they’re called ‘los Toros’ [the Bulls], and they’re the inmates with the most power, the ones who manage all the drug trafficking, black market businesses, and other criminal activity inside the prison.”
The Doctor did not need to ask uncomfortable questions or meddle in the affairs of others to find out everything he knows. He witnesses the violent effects of the prison’s problems pass through his clinic every day. A few years ago, he started seeing wounded prisoners with strange circular cuts on their scalps — patchworks of deep and uniformly patterned incisions. It took him a while to discover what was causing the wounds: The cellblock coordinators had been using boards covered in bottlecaps, nailed upside down, to torture other inmates. They would tie a person’s hands, lift his feet against the wall and place him in a kind of headstand, then position his head on the bottlecap board so that the entire weight of his body was resting on his head, and the jagged edges of the bottlecaps would cut, slowly but deeply, into his skin.
This is just one of the many ways that Támara prison is governed from the inside, with the full complicity of the authorities. As with the rondines at El Porvenir and like nearly every other prison in Honduras, in Támara prison, the inmates who control the yards discipline their fellow inmates through torture. In every sector of the prison, there are certain cells reserved for the sole purpose of punishment. These rooms are called CORE, short for Regional Commando, after the Metropolitan No. 1 station of the Honduran National Police in Tegucigalpa, known as CORE VII, infamously rumored as a place where authorities would take detainees to be tortured.
Fifteen years after the hurricane, what was intended to be a model prison for progressive penal reform has been consumed by corruption and institutional neglect. The authorities treat the prisoners like animals, with free reign to rule over their own cruel jungle. The result is a force that no one can —or perhaps wants— to tame. The authorities, for their part, limit themselves to futile attempts to keep the violence contained to its cage. And so, when an escape attempt is not planned and paid for —that is, not authorized by the networks of corruption that rule the prison, from the cellblock bosses to the offices of prison administration— the guards shoot anyone who tries to break free.
* * *
On May 19, 2009, Alexander Noé Moncada Zúñiga, a 29-year-old man convicted of breaking and entering, tried to escape from the Marco Aurelio Soto prison in Honduras, or Támara. He had been incarcerated for less than a month, but was as anxious as an addict separated from his fix. Prison, at first, can feel like an intolerable itch. At 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May, the thin, mustachioed prisoner, dressed in casual workout clothes, launched himself over the first of two walls that form the prison’s security perimeter. The guards spotted him in the so-called “dead zone” between the two perimeters and fired some warning shots. He hesitated for a few moments, measuring his slim chances of success, and decided that his safest option was to climb back over to his unit. A guard, despite observing that the prisoner was returning to the prison, shot him as his back was turned, wounding him in the buttock.
The shot did not kill Moncada Zúñiga. The thwarted escapee received emergency medical attention and was even able to speak with journalists upon his arrival to the Escuela de Tegucigalpa hospital a few hours after the incident. He explained that he had tried to escape because he was worried, because his family had not come to visit him. He smiled for the cameras. Before nightfall, he was dead. The cause, according to official reports: exsanguination. A year later, the guard who shot him was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
This was the only case of its kind that has ever resulted in a conviction. Inmates are reluctant to denounce or testify, because they are afraid that when they return to the prison, the guards or the unit coordinators, working in collusion with corrupt authorities, will kill them.
* * *
The Prosecutor deals with hundreds of cases like Moncada’s: torture, abuse, and human rights violations in prisons. Like the Doctor, he tells his stories under the protection of anonymity, because he knows what it’s like to face death threats, and because in Honduras, the murders of prosecutors and human rights defenders over the last three years have turned fear of dying into a common-sense habit. The corrupt don’t want the system to change, and the Prosecutor knows that the corrupt, especially those who work in government offices, know him and hate him. Which is why he learned how to shoot, and never goes anywhere unarmed.
“It’s quite common. Sometimes what happens is that an inmate will manage to cross the dead zone and then 10 or 15 police will chase him down, and when they have him almost subdued —it’s easier that way— they’ll shoot him in the back, and he dies. Or they arrest him, take him to the prison, and then he dies.”
“Are any files or investigations ever opened into these cases?”
“The higher-ups aren’t interested. Guards who shoot prisoners are never disciplined. When a prisoner dies, there is never an internal investigation. If the police even find out about it. Either way, they don’t investigate. A case is only opened when the Public Prosecutor’s Office takes the initiative, or when there’s a denunciation from an NGO.”
The Prosecutor tells me how once, when he came to Támara to investigate a case of abuse of authority, a group of prisoners approached him, anxious to show him something. “They’re going to get the cripples,” they told him. Before long, a group of roughly a dozen people approached, limping, stumbling, leaning on crutches. A procession of disabled and broken men: prisoners who had tried to escape and were punished by the guards for it. Many had rigid and bent arms from fractures that were never set, or twisted and mangled feet.
“I’ve heard of people being shot in the feet, as a form of exemplary punishment,” I say.
“Several inmates have told me, “Yeah, I managed to escape, but then they caught me and shot me in the leg. ‘So that you never do it again,’ they told me, and then pum!” There have been a lot of cases like that at Támara. You could fill a whole book with them. And that’s not the worst that has happened, or that continues to happen.”
On March 27, 2014, at 2 p.m., three inmates attempted to escape from Támara, apparently after bribing the soldier stationed in the guard tower. When the other guards realized what was happening, they chased the escapees and, after firing a few warning shots, started aiming to wound or kill. One of the prisoners, Erik David Sevilla Salgado, was shot in the leg. He was taken to the hospital in Tegucigalpa, where he died. Another prisoner who, just like Moncada in 2009, was wounded by guards and then bled to death.
Twenty-four hours later, authorities at Támara had not sent any written report of the incident to the national prison system headquarters, located less than one kilometer away. The Prosecutor knows that when an incident like this happens, police will not help identify, much less arrest, the culprit.
“Like I said, nobody cares about these cases.”
* * *
Moncho Cálix is the best known and perhaps most admired and celebrated prisoner in Honduras. Newspapers have nicknamed him El exterminador de mareros , “the exterminator of gang members,” for the long list of violent attacks he has committed —whether with a knife, gun, or grenade— against pandilleros in prison.
On July 24, 2012, Cálix lived up to his nickname once again. That Tuesday, in the maximum-security annex of Támara, a separate building erected some hundred meters from the main National Penitentiary, Moncho Cálix stuck a .38 revolver through the window of his cell and began shooting at 18th Street gang members who had gathered in the yard outside. He wounded three people. One of them —the one Cálix shot first, his intended target— was hit in the head. It was Norlin Ardón Varela, alias “Lucifer,” one of the top leaders of 18th Street in Honduras.
None of the gang members died, but Lucifer’s injuries were so serious that, according to other prisoners, he has been left vulnerable and at the mercy of his enemies. He can no longer fend for himself, much less defend himself. That is why Lucifer never returned to the maximum-security wing, but instead went to the El Escorpión unit, where his 18th Street homies could take care of him and keep him protected.
There is little question that it was a guard —a policeman— who provided Cálix with the revolver. The day after the attack, newspapers reported on the corruption in the country’s prison system and on the subsequent calls to release surveillance footage to try and determine who had passed Lucifer the gun. The Public Prosecutor’s Office announced that they would be opening an investigation. Nearly two years later, no one has been arrested and it would make no sense to believe, at this point, that anyone will be.
When I ask La Sombra —“The Shadow”— about Moncho Cálix, he answers as if reading the beginning of an encyclopedia entry: “Moncho Cálix Urtecho... is a member of the Urtecho family, who have worked as public security advisors...”
What can be said about The Shadow is only that his work permits him to walk through the walls of the prison at will and that he knows every corner of every prison in Honduras. He knows the guards, the general coordinators of each unit, and the poor souls who suffer their punishments, and he knows the ins and outs of administrative corruption and the big business that is prison management. And he knows what every cellblock in every prison is saying about every death and every escape.
The Shadow welcomes me into his home, a modest dwelling in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Seeing the simplicity of the place, one might assume that The Shadow, despite swimming in a swamp of corruption, has clean hands.
“A lot of people have told me about Cálix,” I tell him. “They call him el asesino de mareros: the killer of gang members.”
“Yeah, he’s from Olancho, but he lived in La Mosquitia. He’s a former member of the Armed Forces and has a lot of military experience. He’s in prison because he has a drug problem. Heroin. He was arrested with his wife, but he took the blame for everything. When he got to prison, he became a sicario.”
“He only became a hitman once he was inside?!”
“I mean, yeah. He didn’t have a violent background, but from the very beginning they made him take responsibility for murders that he didn’t commit, and then later on he started doing his own killing. He’s 18th Street’s enemy number one. He’s already racked up like… at minimum… 40 or 50 bodies inside the prison, but you should write it in your article as 20 or 30, so no one can say I’m exaggerating.”
The Shadow talks about Cálix’s crimes with a certain natural cynicism, like an undertaker speaking of death as a simple matter of fact. But he minimizes the numbers he can’t prove so that no one takes him for a charlatan. In Honduran prisons, the rot of corruption is so putrid and pervasive that it has to be played down for it to sound plausible. Who would believe that a serial killer of such violent dimensions could be forged inside the walls of a prison without the authorities taking action, without journalism publishing a word of warning, without society protesting in indignation, without the scandal inspiring a major novel or movie?
I would be reluctant to believe The Shadow, too, were it not for the fact that I heard the name Moncho Cálix repeated in every other conversation I had in the last two weeks about deaths in custody. Cálix is the sicario-symbol of the Honduran prison system. He entered the system in 2001, condemned to 19 years. But after committing a number of murders in broad daylight and confessing to many of them, his sentences now total 340 years.
A few days ago, a human rights defender who follows Cálix’s case —who is terrified of him and speaks his name only in whispers, as if afraid that the killer might hear her, even though she knows there are miles separating us from the prison that holds him— says that Cálix’s sentence is short considering the severity and sheer number of his crimes, which she claims include over 100 murders.
“Analyzing his case files, I counted 104 murders in prison between the years 2003 and 2006, most by hanging and almost all the victims gang members,” she told me, sitting in her small office. “After that, I started to lose count. I stopped following his cases until 2012, when he tried to kill that other one... that gang member who got messed up. And that’s when it all came back to me.”
I ask The Shadow who orders all these killings, and he spins on a dime from cynicism to outrage. He can’t seem to decide if, and how much, he cares about what goes on inside the prison, or how much he will allow himself to care.
“What happens is that human rights organizations don’t have the courage. They accommodate themselves to the reality, all of them... because they have to survive, too.
“Are you saying they only report some of what they know?”
“Yes, and they don’t prevent abuses. They don’t intervene when they need to, they don’t denounce the leaders who control the cellblocks. They just focus on soliciting compensation [for families].”
“But that money goes to the victims.”
“But will a paycheck stop the killings? Look, at the end of the day, the problem, the conflict, is not over the death of the inmate... it’s about what the living demand and require. That’s what I’ve learned.”
That inmates have absolute control over all aspects of life in the cellblocks does not only mean that they have their own systems of brutal discipline. It means that, with the complicity of prison authorities, everything that exists and takes place inside the prison is managed as a private good or service. Since the word of a general coordinator carries weight in the official determination of a prisoner’s dangerousness, they charge 300,000 lempiras, or more than $15,000, to prevent any prisoner who does not submit to their hierarchy from being sent to maximum security, or 150,000 lempiras to let him stay in the arrival and booking unit, which is reserved for new inmates and is theoretically safer than the rest of the prison. And once an inmate is sent to his designated spot, each bed, each sleeping space, has a price as well. Prisoners pay 6,000 lempiras, or $300 dollars, for the right to sleep on the floor of a corridor.
And life itself, also privatized, carries its own price.
“In 2013 there were two murders, at 2 million lempiras a piece, paid for by drug traffickers and executed under the authorization of the prison director: the murder of Tatum, a narco from La Mosquitia, and the murder of ‘El Chino,’ who was from Los Cachiros [a major Honduran drug trafficking organization].”
David Dalbet Golcher Tatum was 55 years old when he was killed on July 19, 2013, in a shooting at the Támara booking unit during visitation hours. He had been serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking and money laundering, and had recently been transferred from another prison after receiving death threats. Wilmer Javier Herrera Sierra, alias “El Chino,” was executed one month earlier on the highway to Tegucigalpa, along with three other convicts and one of their wives. The three men had been granted conditional parole and could leave the prison on weekends to spend time at with their families at home. On the day of their execution, two vehicles with four men in ski masks intercepted the pick-up that was transporting them and opened fire with a machine-gun. The shooters took special interest in Herrera’s face and head. More than 100 shell casings were left at the scene. Two more deaths, among the many more that remain unexplained and unaccounted for in Honduras. The Shadow says that each murder came at a cost of around $100,000.
We pause our conversation. The Shadow’s son comes over to the table and tells him he’s leaving, and asks if he can take the car.
“Sure, go head, just don’t forget to roll down the window.”
The Shadow notices my confused look. It’s cold tonight in Tegucigalpa and the vehicle has tinted windows. Common sense would suggest that it’s safer to keep the window rolled up. But in Honduras, there are less obvious logics is at play:
“I don’t want them to confuse him for me, and do something to him.”
The Shadow is afraid because he knows.
“You’ve already written about Chepe in San Pedro Sula, but let’s talk about Támara: Miguel Flores was the first general coordinator of the National Penitentiary after the PC [Central Penitentiary] transfer in 1998. Jacobo Ramírez, who was in the Processed 2 unit, took over the position when he was released five years ago. He was let out in 2013, and for the past year, Cosme Flores, who is in the Sentenced 2 unit, has assumed the role of coordinator. Now the coordinator of Processed 2 is Jacobo Ramírez’s brother, and people are already saying that he’s the likely successor to Cosme Flores when he leaves.”
“The people who really run the prison…”
“And then there’s Wilmer Escoto, the coordinator of Casa Blanca [the Sentenced 1 unit, separate from the rest of the prison], who is a legend, extremely bloodthirsty. Make no mistake, they’re all more bloodthirsty than Moncho Cálix. Cálix is just the joker in the deck, a sicario who the unit supports with money and food. But in Honduras, in the prisons, there are at least 10 Moncho Cálixes.”
“But he’s killed dozens of people!”
“He’s in the media a lot, but it’s the other guys who are the real killers.”
Despite widespread allegations, not a single prison murder ring has been dismantled or prosecuted in the past decade. The system steps aside and turns a blind eye anytime a dead prisoner turns up in a sewer drain. The state, it seems, has a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to deaths in prison, leaving inmates at the whim of an invisible criminal hand. And sometimes, thanks to the systematic neglect that keeps prisons in a constant state of near total collapse, that invisible hand — that hired killer — is called fire.
* * *
Cell number 19 in the San Pedro Sula prison was once a 200 square-meter concrete box, home to 183 members of the Mara Salvatrucha. An oversized coffin, with no windows or ventilation, no running water, no showers or sinks, and only one exit: an iron-barred door, about a meter and a half wide.
At 1:30 a.m. on Monday, May 17, 2004, the electrical wiring above this very door short-circuited, starting a fire. For over an hour, the inmates in room 19 cried out for help, for fire extinguishers, for water, for something. During the entire week before the fire, the water in the toilets —the only water in the cell— had been shut off. The inmates pleaded for someone to open the door, to save them from the flames and smoke. The guards who heard their screams fired shots at the ground outside the cell, warning the men inside not to go near the bars. Some of the guards insulted them. “Leave them, leave them,” they said to each other. “Let them burn to death.” It took 25 minutes for prison authorities to notify the fire department. At 2:30, the prisoners themselves, those who were still alive, managed to force open the steel door and stumble out into the fresh air. Inside the cell there were 107 corpses. Some were burned alive by the flames, more than a hundred died of asphyxiation.
The government of Ricardo Maduro, with the memory of the El Porvenir massacre still fresh on the public’s mind, reacted swiftly and set up a special fund to compensate the victims. The next day, with many bodies remaining to be identified and delivered, families were already being given 10,000 lempiras each ($525 in today’s dollars) to help with burial expenses. The president, on an official visit to Europe, cancelled his attendance at the Prince of Spain’s wedding and returned to Honduras. He was shocked by the incident, he said. After the massacre at El Porvenir, Maduro had ordered the immediate creation of a prison reform commission, and one month later, on May 13, 2003, a report landed on his desk: over 100 pages acknowledging mistakes, denouncing illegalities and corruption in the system, and proposing reforms. A year had passed since then, and those 107 corpses have removed the makeup from the president’s political will.
Lorena took the 10,000 lempiras for the death of her husband, Wilfredo, a 24-year-old gang member who had been approved to be released the week of the fire, and with it, she bought a coffin and a tombstone. The day she had planned to welcome him home, she buried him. He had only been in prison for six days, and should have never been taken a second time, she said — but sometimes fortune condemns a person, justly or unjustly.
That second time, luck had landed Wilfredo in prison unjustly. For being a trusting person, and for believing that Honduras might actually care about its prisoners and their rehabilitation. A year before his death, Wilredo had done a few months in jail for selling cocaine on a street corner, and once inside, he had secretly agreed to take part in a rehabilitation program that involved removing his tattoos. Released and back on the streets, he carried with him, at all times, a letter from the prison’s ministry indicating his involvement in the program and his commitment to rehabilitation. Which is why, unlike his friends, he didn’t run when the police came to his neighborhood, Rivera Hernández, one of the most violent barrios in the most violent city in the world: San Pedro Sula. He trusted his fate to the letter he carried in his pocket, and he didn’t run. The police ripped the sheet of paper up in front of his face. And then arrested him, for illicit association.
Lorena is a small, round woman who looks like she’s smiling even when she’s crying. She sells to live: corn, cassava... When she was a girl, she lived in La Satélite, another neighborhood in San Pedro Sula famous for its gang presence and routine homicides. Her family left after their house was taken by Hurricane Mitch — which, like all natural tragedies, pursued the poorest of the poor the hardest.
She has a certain flirtatious charm and street-vendor sass when she speaks. Three curls hang over her forehead and she closes her eyes when she nods or talks, like a studious kid concentrating in class.
“Look, they think 10,000 lempiras will keep us quiet. They gave it out so quickly, like they were trying to make us shut up and stop talking, but that can’t pay for all the years we’ve suffered. The deaths have to serve to make things better!” she says, raising and then slumping her shoulders to emphasize that her point is obvious.
“What do you mean?”
“That it’s the children who suffer now, who are left with that pain, blaming society, blaming everyone. My daughter was 6 years old when the fire happened, and she blames the police and the government.”
“Because they didn’t open the door and save their dad?”
Next to Wilfredo’s grave, in the Los Laureles cemetery in Rivera Hernández, there are seven other tombstones for gang members who died in the San Pedro Sula prison fire. In Honduras, there are entire towns or neighborhoods where prison is just another street on the block — another place you end up sometimes, by fate or bad luck, through the fault of others, or on your own two feet. Rivera Hernández is one of those neighborhoods. This is why, on the day the cell in San Pedro prison went up in flames, eight families in Rivera Hernández mourned, and why, now, a girl in the neighborhood named Kaylin, now 16 years old, hates the police because they let her father die.
* * *
Kaylin collapsed in tears in front of the TV when she saw the news. No station would have ever showed the bloodied corpse of a murdered deputy minister, a lawyer, or policeman, but the half-burned bodies of prisoners apparently did not merit the ethical filters that society tends to apply to its dead. Kaylin saw the smoldering pieces of human beings on the screen and burst into tears, even though she did not know any of the victims.
“Mami! Do you see how many are dead in Comayagua!?” she said to Lorena over the phone, sobbing. “Again! It happened again!”
The husband and father-in-law of the woman sitting in front of me begged for years to be transferred from San Pedro Sula prison, afraid it would burn again, or that a riot would break out for the umpteenth time. Her father had survived the 2004 tragedy, and thought that staying in the same prison would be tempting fate. So they were both relieved to find out, in 2009, that they would be transferred to Comayagua, a peaceful, small-town prison farm where inmates strolled with their straw hats in the open courtyard.
They died there three years later. February 17, 2012. In the middle of the night, a fire spread in the blink of an eye through five cells, incinerating the bodies of the people locked inside. Like at San Pedro before, no guards opened the doors, and there were no fire extinguishers or water hoses to douse the flames. Like at San Pedro, the authorities didn’t think it was necessary to call the fire department. Like at San Pedro, guards fired shots to stop inmates from making a run for it — because prisoners can die, but they can never escape. Of the 852 inmates in the prison, 362 were burned alive or asphyxiated. More than half of them had no convictions. They were, legally speaking, innocent.
The woman sitting in front of me is dressed in black. She spoke with her husband over the phone the day of the fire, and could hear in the background, through the receiver, the screams of people being burned alive. Her husband had managed to escape the flames by hiding in a bathroom. He was shaken, but safe. He loved her and would call her the next day, he told her. After hanging up the phone, he realized that his father was still inside the burning cell and went back into that smoke-filled cave to save him. Neither came out alive.
The woman is afraid to give her name or the names of her dead. She has stopped studying law because she is alone now, widowed, and there is no one to help her care for her two daughters, who are three and nine. Before, she survived on the money her husband would send from the food business he ran inside. In Honduras, prison is just another kind of city — a place of forced exile, and a source of remittances. The woman is convinced that what happened in Comayagua was no accident; like most of the families of the victims of the fire, she believes it was another planned attack, perpetrated by some hidden hand determined to cleanse Honduras of its prisoners, to exterminate them.
“Just imagine. You survive the fire in San Pedro Sula to go die the same way in Comayagua. It’s like they’re choosing… ‘This year we’ll burn this one!’”
The woman in black says that she, along with all the other widows of Comayagua, are determined not to end up like the widows of San Pedro Sula who had to wait ten years to be heard. She says that they, too, are prepared to file an international lawsuit.
* * *
“What happened with Comayagua, it was like the state put a gun to its head.” Sitting in a café in San Pedro Sula, Joaquín Mejía smiles like a chess player who sees that his opponent has left the queen open for attack. Just as he must have smiled to himself that morning in February 2012, when he opened his email to find a message from the Assistant Attorney General of Honduras, Ethel Deras.
Mejía wears boots, blue jeans, a fitted t-shirt, a small beaded necklace, and several leather and woven-fabric wrist bracelets. He dresses more like a rock star or a university student who skips class than like who he is: one of the most powerful state’s attorneys in Honduras. But with his carefully trimmed beard and cheeky manner of speech, in the past five years, working from the offices of ERIC, a law firm founded by the Jesuits, he has prosecuted and won several cases in defense of environmentalists and rural human rights activists, among others. He is 39 years old, and already a popular candidate for future Human Rights Ombudsman.
When the Comayagua prison burned down, this enfant terrible of the human rights struggle in Honduras was part of a team created by the advocacy groups Cáritas and Pastoral Penitenciaria, which for eight years had attempted to pressure the government to accept responsibility and apologize for the 2004 fire at the San Pedro Sula prison, to no avail. Because the Honduran justice system had acquitted the prison director without investigating other suspects, the team had taken the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and then to the Inter-American Court. The state’s only response was denial on certain occasions, administrative silence on others.
But a few days after the new fire, Mejía received an e-mail. The Attorney General, who reports to the Office of the President, wanted to meet with them. He describes his desperate maneuver, apparently motivated by the deaths at Comayagua, as “the state putting a gun to its head.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The state was sitting down to negotiate about a prior case, but with the recent tragedy on the table. They were totally delegitimized, open to accepting anything. From then on, we took advantage of them… literally, we took advantage of the state’s lack of experience litigating in the Inter-American System.”
Suddenly, the government was desperate to reach an agreement, because a hearing was now scheduled for February 28 before the Inter-American Court at its chambers in San José, Costa Rica to resolve the case of the fire at the San Pedro prison. Motivated by the opportunity to clean up, in a matter of days, the image of negligence and disregard for the deaths of prisoners that the government had cultivated over years, Ethel Deras traveled to San Pedro Sula to meet with the lawyers of the victims. The meetings, held at the headquarters of the diocese, did not result in an agreement, despite the unprecedented flexibility of the private lawyers hired to negotiate on behalf of the government. On the 27th, the meetings moved to Costa Rica.
The night before the hearing, a final meeting was held at a hotel in San José. The discussions were tense: Mejía and the lawyers from Cáritas played good cop, bad cop. Every time there was a disagreement, Mejía would stand up at the table and threaten to leave and take the rest of the delegation with him. For the most part, it worked: The state’s lawyers eventually gave in. Mejía admits that he went so far as to deceive his interlocutors by citing non-existent rulings to support his arguments, taking advantage of his moral and technical superiority in this case of international litigation. And the state’s clumsy negotiators, alleged experts in international human rights law, fell for it. The agreement that was signed five minutes before the hearing was set to start, and in the presence of court magistrates, was a near total surrender by the state.
“It sounds like you were being a real bunch of bastards.”
“The state was being the biggest bastard! You want to know why I tricked them like that? Because the prosecutor, who knew that hiring private lawyers for a case like this was a really awful thing to do, dared to tell me when we were in San José that those three private attorneys were all paying for their own expenses, and that they had taken the case because they loved their country. She really thought I’d buy that, that I’m some idiot! Later I found out that at least one of them had been paid half a million lempiras.”
On February 28, 2012, the Honduran state formally accepted responsibility for the 107 deaths at San Pedro Sula prison in 2004 and agreed to compensate the families of the victims. The government also pledged to make major reforms to the penitentiary system and in June 2013 established a transitional commission tasked with cleaning up the country’s prisons. Its first steps have been modest. The executive branch has given the commission authority, but no budget for new prisons, or to train new guards, or to investigate cases, or to increase security...
With the memory of Ricardo Maduro’s futile promises of reform following the massacre at El Porvenir, Mejía is pessimistic about the latest reform process. But he finds consolation in the knowledge that the court’s ruling has helped make a painful truth public.
“El Porvenir was the confirmation that the policy of mano dura, of cleansing and social extermination in the streets, had been carried over to the prisons,” Mejía says. “And then you see what happened at San Pedro Sula and Comayagua... There’s no other logical explanation: It’s a state policy, because a policy doesn’t have to mean doing something; doing nothing can also be a policy of state.
Arabeska Sanchez’s calm composure clashes with Mejía’s high energy, but they are both united by a tenacious marathon-runner philosophy that motivates their fight against this policy of neglect. As she finishes her Seven Up, Arabeska Sánchez tells me that her last job when she was still working at the Public Prosecutor’s Office was to systematize all the forensic information for the victims of the Comayagua fire into a single database. Corpses and more corpses. After that, she resigned. Now she works at the Observatory on Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). She says that while the testimonies speak of guards shooting prisoners to prevent them from escaping, she did not find any signs of bullet wounds in any of the autopsy reports she reviewed.
“My conclusion is that in Comayagua, unlike in El Porvenir, they learned how to kill without leaving any evidence”
* * *
On Sunday visitation day, with the sun shining, even a place as gloomy as Támara can look like a family-friendly park: couples hugging, children running around the sports field, bags of food coming and going. The only reminder that the place isn’t entirely controlled by prisoners is the constant, watchful gaze of the guards, and the limits they set on anyone who wants to walk around the enclosure. They prevent me from reaching the isolation cell that holds Moncho Cálix, and entering the Sentenced 1 and 2 cellblocks in search of the CORE, or to find El Escorpión, the unit holding 18th Street prisoners, to hear their version of what happened during the most recent massacre.
On August 3, 2013, at 7:00 a.m., members of the Mara Salvatrucha hammered a large hole in one of the walls separating the 18th Street unit from the rest of the prison, attacking their enemies with AK-47s and as many as eleven grenades. Three dieciocheros were killed. The transition committee tasked with reforming the country’s prison system had been set up just two months earlier. Quite a welcome.
When I learned about the attack, two details immediately caught my attention: First, to get from their cells to those of their enemies, the MS-13 prisoners had to cross the entire compound, all three units, all under the control of paisas. Clearly, there must have been a pact between gang members and non-gang members to attack 18th Street. Second, the reaction of authorities was essentially to increase the prison’s perimeter security, but there were no major actions directed toward the inside of the prison. When the police and army carried out cell searches a few days later, they did not find a single long gun, like the ones used in the attack.
But being here, in Támara, walking around the prison yard and talking to inmates, I noticed something else: Right above the place where the MS-13 attackers broke through the wall after more than an hour of hammering, there is a watchtower occupied 24 hours a day by a guard. The prison authorities —it seems clear— allowed the attack to happen, one way or another.
Sitting on a wooden stool in one of the small stores illegally scattered around the prison, I discuss my finding with El Guitarrista. He just smiles.
The Guitarist is a young man, not much older than 30, but he has been in prison for more than a decade on a homicide conviction, and he knows that inside these walls it’s best not to make accusations. So he keeps quiet and smiles. He was in El Porvenir eleven years ago, on the day of the massacre. He was one of the rondines operating under Coca’s command. He says he was not involved in the death of any gang members.
“When the coroner asked for help, I was put in charge of bagging up the bodies of the woman and the girl who had been visiting the prison… Look, I’m not justifying what happened, but I’m telling you, those mareros were planning to kill every single one of us. They would have killed us all if we’d let them.”
I don’t believe a word of it. I can’t imagine him sitting around with his arms crossed or hiding under his bed while a war raged on for over two hours nearby. He seems like a peaceful man, but in prison, guys who would gut their neighbor with the leg of a chair in an instant if they felt even a hint of danger are, on most days, peaceful men.
Fiddling with some random chords, The Guitarist says that what happened at El Porvenir was just another case of business as usual. That in reality, every dead prisoner is a success in the eyes of the authorities.
“They turn a blind eye because when there’s a riot in the prison, they don’t see it as a loss, they see it as a gain. It’s a purge, a purification, and every prisoner who dies represents a cost savings for the government. Even if they’re innocent.”
“That’s such a cruel idea, even if they were guilty.”
“Well yeah, but that’s how they reduce [the numbers]. They just wash their hands of it. ‘One less criminal!’ They think they’re reducing the crime rate, but they’re the criminals.”
Standing next to him, El Ronco (“the one with the gravelly voice”) nods in agreement. He has a mustache and the body of a boxer. His neck seems to have swallowed his torso, and at over 50 years old, he looks like he still trains every day. El Ronco tells me that he grew up in the United States and went to college there. He doesn’t say where. If I wonder how he made the mistake of returning to Honduras, I’m sure he wonders the same. He talks about prison with the concision and matter-of-factness of an old man who’s seen it all, and he answers my questions with a hint of exasperation. He’s annoyed by my ignorance.
“The government is behind a lot of the massacres,” he says. “It just is.”
“That’s a serious accusation. Do you have proof?”
“How could it be any other way? Here, the government is simply a mediator between other groups. They add fuel to the fire; they give us weapons so we can kill each other, and when it’s the police, they support whoever has the most money. They tip the balance to one side or the other, every time.”
Támara was supposed to be a model prison; now, it’s a swarm of illegal businesses, hate, and weapons to consummate that hate in blood. Sitting here, in the heart of this place, it’s hard to believe in solutions. When I ask El Ronco if it’s possible that all of this could be happening without the knowledge of the prison director and his superiors, he laughs.
“It’s like any other business: Nothing happens without the boss getting his cut. Believe me. I’ve done business with them, with the prison administration. Illegal business, I mean.”
“Just like that? It’s that simple?”
“Just like that. But the government is blind and stupid, because if things keep going on like this, if all the corruption and the killing continues, what will happen to their children? Will they kill them too, like they kill your children, or mine?”
*Translated by Max Granger