It seems the most violent country in the world also has the most violent prisons in the world. Or at least the prisons in which some of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history have taken place. In the most recent, in 2012, more than 300 people were burned to death; in the penultimate, more than 100; in the one prior to that, more than 60… And while these outbursts have shaken Honduras, the reality is that assassinations, sponsored or permitted by the state, occur every other day.
Everyone knows what happened in the prison of El Porvenir and everyone, especially Honduras, seems to have forgotten: at 9:10 am on April 5, 2003, 10 minutes after the mutiny broke out, police and soldiers entered the courtyard with their heavy weapons and pistols, theoretically to restore order. At that point, only five people had died. Two hours later, 68 corpses had piled up in 20 cells.
Barrio 18 gang members began the battle. A non-aggression pact had been observed for months beforehand between them and the “Paisas” — the prisoners unaffiliated to any gang. Despite constantly appearing on newspaper front pages; despite being seen to embody evil and inspire fear; and despite their capacity for violence, history shows that in Honduras, when it comes to doing battle with other criminal groups or security forces, gang members generally come off worse. The peace of El Porvenir, in the coastal city of La Ceiba, rested on that certainty. The paisas outnumbered gang members fourfold, even counting the newcomers. And it was paisas who made up the “rondines” — the group of prisoners to whom prison authorities had for years delegated the responsibility of maintaining order in the courtyard; men who, with a blow from a club or machete, imposed law within the prison walls.
With the explosion of plan “Zero Tolerance” against gangs, put in place by the government of President Ricardo Maduro (2002 – 2006), while in the streets police had begun to pursue and rout the feared and despised gangs to the applause of the population, in the prisons they were watched and treated like dangerous animals. In El Porvenir, the authorities had given the rondines the keys to cells 2 and 6, occupied by members of the Barrio 18 gang. The paisas, led by Edgardo Coca, decided who came and went, and when. They made continuous checks, up to three per day. They also established collective punishment for gang members.
This unequal peace, however, began to crack on March 7 that year, when Mario Cerrato, alias “Boris,” landed in El Porvenir with 29 other Barrio 18 members. They had been transferred from Tamara prison, ostensibly to avoid quarrels with other prisoners. Theoretically to avoid deaths.
Once in El Porvenir, Boris quickly and indignantly noted that the Barrio 18 kept its head down in the face of abuses carried out by non-gang prisoners. Almost immediately he conjured unwritten rules for the gang and managed to displace then-leader Edwin Calona, alias “The Danger,” in decision making. Boris had war in mind.
It is known that he bribed a guard to provide him with a gun and over the course of four weeks organized a plan of attack.
On Saturday, April 5, he took his new gun and went to the cell in which Coca and the other leaders of the rondines were gathered. Alongside him were The Danger and eight other gang members armed with sticks and knives. Boris’ first shot killed Jose Alberto Almendarez, the deputy-head of the patrols. Amid the initial confusion, the gang members managed to gun down or hack to death four paisas. Many of the patrol members fled and sought refuge in the bathrooms of their cells. Others, the veterans, ran for their weapons, to respond to Boris.
All witnesses agree that when, 10 minutes after the first shot, the police guarding the prison and army reinforcements entered the courtyard, they did so with guns blazing and a clear intention to protect the paisas, killing all gang members who crossed their path. Immediately, patrol members, guards and soldiers formed a single battalion and pushed most of the gang members back into their cells. The carnage was about to begin.
A patrol member padlocked cell 6, in which 25 people had taken refuge — including a woman and a girl who had entered as a visitor shortly before the shooting — placed cardboard and mattresses against the barred door, doused them with fuel and set them on fire. The policemen watching did not lift a finger.
A few meters away, in front of cell number 2, policemen, soldiers and patrol members fired their weapons at gang members who had taken refuge there, while shouting at them to surrender. For a moment the crossfire ceased: gang members surrendered and tossed their guns into the courtyard. But the first who dared to come out with their hands up were shot. One died on the spot. Those who remained on the ground, wounded, writhing, were beaten and stabbed by the patrol members. Those who had remained barricaded in the cell suffered an even more brutal death: the smoke and flames from cell 6 passed through to cell 2 and forced them out. Lying face down on the floor, they were executed. After beating them and stabbing them, they were all shot. The same shots later allowed Arabeska Sanchez to reconstruct what happened.
In every corner of the prison, supported by the police and military arms, the paisas completed their revenge. Policemen finished off wounded gang members, while soldiers watched in silence as patrols destroyed already disfigured corpses.
The commander in charge of the operation, Deputy Commissioner Carlos Esteban Henriquez, stopped the slaughter at around 11 am, when he learned that from the ladder of a fire truck that had just arrived to extinguish the blaze, a cameraman was recording everything. Only then did he order his men to stop firing and move the wounded to a hospital. In his first statement to reporters, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Deputy Commissioner Leonel Sauceda, said that among the incidents caused by the gang members in recent months, this had been “the most serious.”
Of the 68 victims — 60 of whom were Barrio 18 members — 23 displayed gunshot wounds. Five bled to death. One had received 20 machete blows to the head. In cell number 6, 25 people died from asphyxiation or burning. The body of one of them was burned to the point that it was impossible to identify — not even its age or sex could be ascertained. The bodies of the dead were taken to San Pedro Sula for autopsy. They arrived at the morgue rotting, unable to endure the four hour ride in the back of unrefrigerated trucks.
President Ricardo Maduro, his Security Minister Oscar Alvarez and his deputy Armando Calidonio, reached the prison at 4 pm, while bodies still lay on the floor. Within minutes, a member of the presidential entourage ordered firefighters to immediately clear the scene of slaughter so that surviving prisoners, who had been evacuated at the height of the fire, could return to their cells as soon as possible. It didn’t matter that — and even today there are those who suggest this was the purpose of restoring order — the water would erase potential evidence and turn the crime scene into a blank slate.