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Honduras Prison Massacre: What Really Happened

On April 5, 2003, 68 people were murdered inside the walls of the El Porvenir prison in Honduras. The story that initially came out of that country said that 59 of the dead were gang members who shot at other prisoners, then barricaded themselves inside the cellblocks. Original reports went on to say that the "vicious" group then set a suicidal fire, killing innocent victims in the process. All the while, the report said, as police were rushing in to restore order.

The only problem with the story though is that it was all false. According to outside experts, it was all made up to cover up what really happened in what turns out to be the worst Honduran prison massacre in many, many years.

According to the new report commissioned by the nation's president, 51 of the dead, all members of a street gang, were actually executed by state police, soldiers, prison guards, and other prisoners working with the guards. The murdered prisoners were either shot, stabbed, beaten or burned to death by the force.

"The prison was a time bomb," said Jose Edgardo Coca, a former police sergeant known as the prisons "leading inmate." The day of the killings the prison held 550 men, 200 over capacity. About 80 percent of those are pretrial detainees, awaiting trials in the severely congested Honduran court system.

About 80 members of a feared youth gang call Mara 18 were transferred to the prison March 18. Mara 18 is an offshoot of Los Angeles' 18th Street gang. It was formed by criminal immigrants deported from the U.S. back to Honduras. Tension immediately ignited between Mara 18 and El Porvenir's established prisoners' association.

The violence began on the morning of Saturday, April 5, when the head of Mara 18, Mario Cerrato, shot Coca with a smuggled pistol. The Mara 18 gang then fought with guards from 9:55 a.m. to 10:05 a.m., until soldiers from a nearby camp along with national police units and members of a special operations squad called the Cobras arrived at the prison.

Cerrato was immediately shot by police. With their leader out of action, the remainder of the Mara 18 group retreated to their cells. Coca's followers then barricaded them in their cell block and set portions of it on fire in front of police.

According to the report, police then "opened fire on gang members who came out of their cells barefoot, their hands raised above their head in surrender." One prisoner was shot as he staggered from his cell in flames. Other prisoners who had already surrendered, were beaten and stabbed as they laid face down in the prison yard, according to the new report.

Despite an exhaustive search after the melee, the pistol was never found. "What became of the gun?" asked Coca. "That is the question of the millenium."

"Of the 68 bodies received at the morgue in San Pedro Sula, 18 had gunshot wounds, 17 had knife wounds, and 24 were burned," the report said. "It is important to note that no firearms were found among the victims."

"It is not true [as the original report stated] that the police opened fire to break up a chaotic fight, as some have attempted to establish," the report continued. "They fired on a defined group within the prison population." Almost every member of Mara 18 who survived was wounded."

The horrifying incident was played down by Armando Celidonio, Honduras' vice minister of state security, calling the deaths an aberration and a momentary loss of control. "It's admirable that nothing happened the other 364 days of the year," he said.

But others, such as Bishop Emiliani, who preached at the prison only two weeks after the murders, labelled the deaths of the Mara 18 youths "an assassination."

"It's one thing to put down a rebellion," he said. "It's quite another to commit murder."

Source: The New York Times

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