AP International

Fear stalks the funerals of victims of Honduras prison massacre

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Fear simmered among the small knot of relatives gathered Thursday for the wake of a mother and daughter who were among 46 female inmates slaughtered in this week’s prison riot in Honduras.

Relatives wept openly, but said they feared the Barrio 18 gang that carried out the massacre might come after the victims’ families as well.

Rumors circulated among those at the wake that gang members had kidnapped women from the funeral of another victim.

One mourner, who wouldn’t give his name, said Thursday “we are afraid.”

Mourner Johanna Soriano Euceda said “the pain we are feeling is enormous,” after her mother, Maribel Euceda Brevé, 51, and her sister Karla Soriano Euceda, 38, were killed in the attack on Tuesday. Both had been imprisoned on drug charges,

One woman, who also asked that her name not be used, wept beside the two coffins holding her sister-in-law and her niece, which stood on the street in front of their home in a poor neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, the capital.

“Go give me strength to bear this pain,” she wailed. “We want justice, because these were not dogs they killed.”

In a sense, they were the lucky ones; at least they had a body to mourn and bury.

Authorities said some of the other bodies were so badly burned they need genetic testing or dental studies to identify.

The picture that began to emerge of Tuesday’s violence at the women’s prison in Tamara was one of a carefully planned massacre. The killings were carried out by inmates belonging to the notorious Barrio 18 street gang, but officials suspect a drug cartel might be behind them as well.

Assistant Security Minister Julissa Villanueva, who was removed as head of the prison system after the riot, but retained her Cabinet post, said that there may have been a larger conspiracy in the massacre, the worst killings in recent memory at a women’s prison.

“There are criminal, perverse, Machiavellian minds at work here, who organized this crime against innocent people, and who are the ones who control the smuggling of drugs and weapons into the prisons,” Villanueva told The Associated Press.

The incarcerated members of Barrio 18 slaughtered the 46 female inmates by spraying them with gunfire, hacking them with machetes and then locking survivors in their cells and dousing them with flammable liquid.

Chillingly, the gang members were able to arm themselves with pistols and machetes, brush past guards and attack. They even carried locks to shut their victims inside, apparently to burn them to death.

Jessica Sánchez, an activist with the Civil Society Group, a human rights organization, said that “we believe that this massacre was carried out on orders from a criminal network, and I am sure it was known beforehand, and nothing was done.”

Miguel Martínez, a security ministry spokesman, said the attack was taped by security cameras up to the moment the gang members destroyed them in what he called a planned attack.

“You can see the moment in which the women overcome the guards, leaving them helpless, and take their keys,” Martínez said.

President Xiomara Castro said that the riot at the prison in Tamara northwest of Tegucigalpa was “planned by maras (street gangs) with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities.”

Castro fired Security Minister Ramón Sabillón, and replaced him with Gustavo Sánchez, who had been serving as head of the National Police.

She ordered that all of the country’s 21 prisons be placed for one year under the control of the military police, who will be asked to train 2,000 new guards.

But she didn’t announce any immediate plan to improve prison conditions, which are characterized by overcrowding and crumbling facilities. Security is so lax that inmates often run their own cellblocks, selling prohibited goods and extorting money from other inmates.

For example, after Tuesday’s massacre, 18 pistols, an assault rifle, two machine pistols and two grenades were found in the prison. All were smuggled into the facility.

Then there was the shocking fact that — as in many Latin American jails — some of the inmates’ children were living with their mothers in the prison at the time of the attack.

“Some of the women were living with their children in detention. These children are now left behind and highly vulnerable. I am deeply concerned about their well-being and safety,” said Garry Conille, the regional director for UNICEF.

Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

It wasn’t known whether any children witnessed the attack.

The riot’s death toll surpassed that of a fire at a female detention center in Guatemala in 2017, when girls at a shelter for troubled youths set fire to mattresses to protest rapes and other mistreatment. The smoke and fire killed 41 girls.

The worst prison disaster in a century also occurred in Honduras, in 2012, at the Comayagua men’s penitentiary, where 361 male inmates died in a fire possibly caused by a match, cigarette or some other open flame.

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