Death toll rises to 17 in Guatemalan prison fight

Fighting between general prisoners, gang members in Guatemalan maximum security prison leaves seventeen dead, officials say

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Correctional officers get off a truck after arriving at a prison in Escuintla, Guatemala on November 30, 2015

Seventeen people have been killed in fighting inside a maximum security prison in Guatemala, officials said Monday as hundreds of police moved to take control of the facility.

Army troops and police officers surrounded the Granja Penal Canada prison, which holds 3,100 inmates, following violence that erupted on Sunday.

After police went inside to round up prisoners and search for reported firearms, AFP saw groups of inmates made to stand or sit on the grounds as officers monitored them, batons in hand.

More than 2,000 police were deployed at the prison, backed by dozens of soldiers and an armored vehicle. The facility is circled by three security fences, one of them electrified.

Meanwhile the death toll from the episode increased from 16 to 17 after one inmate died in a state hospital from injuries, an official from the district attorney's office said.

The violence appeared to have been triggered during a prison yard football game, with tensions between general prisoners and bullying gang members spilling over, a police chief told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The episode occurred during visiting hours, sending wives and girlfriends running, some with children.  

"You could hear shooting all around, and I ran out with three of my children, which is why I had to go back to get the other one," one visitor, Heidy Solares, who came with four children told AFP. She didn't know what happened to her incarcerated husband, Estaban.

Security forces initially refrained from entering because of reports of armed prisoners, Deputy Interior Minister Elmer Sosa said.

"There was no immediate action in order to avoid a confrontation between prisoners and police," he told reporters.

Guatemalan media overnight showed images of black body bags holding inmates who were shot or stabbed to death being taken from the prison to a morgue.

"We are coordinating with prosecutors on an investigation," Sosa said.

He added that the violence by the prisoners did not seem to be an attempt to escape.

Family members of inmates stand at the fence surrounding a prison in Escuintla, Guatemala on November 30, 2015 (Reuters)

Soaring violence

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are plagued by turf battles between violent street gangs fighting to control impoverished communities.

The most powerful of these are the "Mara Salvatrucha" and "Barrio 18," rival gangs whose members are usually held in separate prisons to avoid conflict.

As in many Latin American countries, Guatemala's prisons are badly overcrowded.

The prisons service said the Granja Penal Canada facility was built for only 600 inmates yet contained five times that, Guatemalan media reported.

The number of homicides in Guatemala has soared this year, with the annual toll on track to be at least 6,000. Most of the murders are at the hands of gangs engaged in contract killings, extortion and drug trafficking.

In a bid to curb the violence, Guatemala has deployed nearly 800 police and soldiers in the capital, which is home to some 3.3 million people.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras together reported 15,802 murders in 2014, according to official figures.

More than 50 percent of the victims across the three countries were younger than 25.

This year through September, there have been 4,281 homicides in Guatemalaand 4,942 in El Salvador. Honduras for the first six months of 2015 reported 2,628 murders.

Guatemala, Central America's most populous country with 15.8 million inhabitants, is still recovering from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.