At least 41 inmates were killed on Tuesday morning in central Honduras after a riot broke out at the country’s only prison for women, one of the deadliest outbreaks of violence in the country’s long-troubled prison system.
Most of the victims had been burned, while others had been shot, said Yuri Mora, a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office, who added that the death toll was expected to rise as investigators combed through the detention facility in Támara, near Tegucigalpa, the capital.
While the cause of the violence was not clear, the prison has been the scene of ongoing conflict between feuding gangs.
“We are dismayed by the loss of human lives,” Julissa Villanueva, vice minister of security and head of the Honduran penitentiary system, said in a news conference. The country’s penal system, she said, had been “hijacked” by organized crime.
The death toll on Tuesday makes the episode the deadliest prison riot in the Central American country in years. In late 2019, nearly 40 gang members were killed in clashes at two all-male prisons over the same weekend.
Killings have surged in recent years in the women’s prison, where several inmates have been strangled or stabbed during confrontations between female gang members of two rival criminal organizations: the 18th Street gang and the MS-13 gang.
The country’s president, Xiomara Castro, said she was “shocked” by the deaths and promised to take “drastic measures” to hold responsible officials accountable.
The riot was “planned by gangs in full view of the law enforcement authorities,” she tweeted, without elaborating.
The MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, longtime rivals that originated in the United States, have fomented violence in Honduras and neighboring countries for decades.
Struggling to contain them, Ms. Castro has declared and extended states of emergency since December, suspending some constitutional rights and allowing security agents to detain people who they believe might be associated with gangs.
The model is similar to a far more aggressive approach in El Salvador, where a government crackdown on gang violence has caused homicide rates to plummet — though civil rights groups say it has led to mass arbitrary arrests, extreme overcrowding in prisons and torture.
Honduras’s strategy to tackle gangs has led to a drop in violence this year, the national police has said, though not as steep as in El Salvador.
And extortion by gangs, “one of the main causes of insecurity, migration, displacement, loss of freedom,” according to Ms. Castro, remains a significant problem. A recent report by the local chapter of Transparency International concluded that 8.4 percent of Honduran households continue to suffer from extortion, only a slight drop from last year’s 9 percent.
Violence is not uncommon in prisons in Honduras and other Central American countries where overcrowded facilities filled with rival gang members provide fertile ground for unrest.
A 2021 report on Honduras by Human Rights Watch said that “Overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, poor sanitation, beatings, intra-gang violence, and detainee killings are endemic in prisons.”
Honduras’s National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation housed about 800 inmates, roughly double its capacity, according to a government official.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in 2020, recorded “several violent events” across Honduran prisons, including the women’s facility, “where no violent deaths had been reported before.” Some of those incidents “were allegedly perpetrated with firearms and other prohibited objects,” the commission said.
Contraband, including alcohol, drugs, pistols, machine guns and even grenades, have been found inside prisons, according to Honduran authorities. Local news outlets have reported that some inmates bribe officials to be able to smuggle weapons into the prisons.
The Honduran government in April unveiled a plan to address corruption within the prison system and try to tamp down the violence, including ensuring that inmates are not armed and isolating those with links to criminal gangs and organized crime.
The deadly riot on Tuesday was “the product of a direct attack by organized crime against the actions that we are deliberately taking,’’ Ms. Villanueva told reporters, referring to Ms. Castro’s anti-gang push.