Gang members at a women’s prison in Honduras slaughtered 46 other female inmates by spraying them with gunfire, hacking them with machetes and then locking survivors in their cells before dousing them with flammable liquid, a senior police officer has said.

The carnage in Tuesday’s riot was the worst atrocity at a women’s prison in recent memory; the intensity of the fire left the walls of the cells blackened and beds reduced to twisted heaps of metal.

“A group of armed people went to the cellblock of a rival gang, locked the doors, opened fire on those inside and apparently – this is still under investigation – used some kind of oil to set fire to them,” said Juan López Rochez, the chief of operations for the country’s national police.

The president, Xiomara Castro, said Tuesday’s riot at the prison in the town of Tamara, about 30 miles (50km) north-west of Honduras’s capital, was “planned by maras [gangs] with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities”.

As forensic teams identified more remains on Wednesday, Hondurans were also asking how members of the Barrio 18 were able to smuggle guns and machetes into the prison and move freely between cellblocks. Eighteen pistols, an assault rifle, two machine pistols and two grenades were found after the riot.

“Obviously, there must have been human failures,” López Rochez said. “We are investigating all the employees at the center.”

Sandra Rodríguez Vargas, the assistant commissioner for Honduras’s prison system, said the attackers “removed” guards at the facility – none appeared to have been injured – around 8am Tuesday. .

Twenty-six of the victims were burned to death and the remainder shot or stabbed, said Yuri Mora, the spokesman for Honduras’s national police investigation agency. At least seven inmates were being treated at a Tegucigalpa hospital.

As the death toll crept up, family members gathered outside a morgue in the capital Tegucigalpa, hoping for news of incarcerated relatives.

“We are here dying of anguish, of pain … we don’t have any information,” Salomón García, whose daughter is an inmate at the facility told AP.

Family members said there were clear warning signs ahead of Tuesday’s bloodbath, as tensions increased between Barrio 18 and the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). The two gangs, both of which have roots in Los Angeles, have long battled for control of drug trafficking and extortion across Central America.

Johanna Paola Soriano Euceda, who was waiting outside the morgue in Tegucigalpa for news about her mother, Maribel Euceda, and sister, Karla Soriano. Both were on trial for drug trafficking but were held in the same area as convicted prisoners.

Soriano Euceda said they had told her on Sunday that “they [Barrio 18 members] were out of control, they were fighting with them all the time. That was the last time we talked.”

Police guard the prison where at least 46 were killed in a prison riot in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on 20 June.
Police guard the prison where at least 46 were killed in a prison riot in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Tuesday. Photograph: Gustavo Amador/EPA

Another woman, who did not want to give her name for fear of reprisals, said she was waiting for news about a friend, Alejandra Martínez, 26, who was been held in the ill-fated CellBlock One on robbery charges.

“She told me the last time I saw her on Sunday that the [Barrio] 18 people had threatened them, that they were going to kill them if they didn’t turn over a relative,” she said.

Gangs sometimes demand victims “turn over” a friend or relative by giving the gang their name, address and description, so that enforcers can later find and kidnap, rob or kill them.

Officials described the killings as a “terrorist act”, but also acknowledged that gangs essentially had ruled some parts of the prison.

Gangs wield broad control inside the country’s prisons, where inmates often set their own rules and sell prohibited goods.

“The issue is to prevent people from smuggling in drugs, grenades and firearms,” said the Honduran human rights expert Joaquín Mejía. “Today’s events show that they have not been able to do that.”

Castro has pledged to take “drastic measures”, and the riot maybe increase the pressure on her to emulate the extreme policies of President Nayib Bukele in neighbouring El Salvador.

More than 67,000 people have been arrested – more than 2% of the population – since Bukele launched his anti-gang campaign in March 2022. The crackdown has been widely popular among Salvadorians, but has come at a huge cost for democracy and human rights.

In December, Castro declared a “state of exception” partially suspending constitutional guarantees which has twice been extended, but analysts are skeptical that the measure has had any meaningful impact on crime.


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