Prisoners in San Pedro Sula

In the heart of San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in the world, there is a prison that lives in peace. A 27-year-old thief who decapitated his predecessor governs the prison with the backing of the majority of the inmates, who consider him their benefactor.

His success in a place where the state's influence does not reach illustrates the failure of the corrupt and overwhelmed Honduran penitentiary system.

The San Pedro Sula prison is, seen from the outside, a dirty concrete wall pretending to hold a prison. Inside, on top of what the state built, the inmates have constructed a small town with its own laws of commerce, secret histories, workers, traditions and rulers.

The excerpts below are translated from a report originally published in El Faro. Read the original, full report here.

This is no metaphor. Over the years, using wood and cement and with the tolerance or powerless acquiescence of the authorities, the prisoners have built new cells, windows, staircases, second floors and new walls that have warped any semblance of a regular structure. It is now difficult to distinguish between the original building and its additions. The prison today is a spiral of streets, in which in every corner you find prisoners in workshops making hammocks or shoes, gambling tables, cafes, butchers, green grocers, barber shops, a jewelers. Prisoners can melt silver, design jewelry and buy and sell gold, and even an extraordinarily large, high-ceilinged church -- all in a place built for 800 people but holding 2,500.

[...]

The place is a perfect symbol of the institutional absence of the Honduran penitentiary system. It is abandoned to its fate and entrusted to a corrupt police force that use arbitrary violence to compensate for their lack of authority, because in reality, they rule neither the streets nor this prison.

[...]

The events leading to the massacre that crowned Jose Cardozo, known as "Chepe," as ruler of this prison, began with the release of a brutal leader called Lazaro Francisco Breve, and his replacement with an even more brutal leader, Mario Henriquez. There were warning signs; deaths and explosions of violence. One of these came in February 2012, after Mario and his people raped the visitor of a prisoner from cell block 12 -- turning the prison into a battlefield throughout the night. This was the first time Chepe tried to take the prison. From the outside, shots could be heard every few minutes, while in the "Paisa" sector -- where non-gang members are held -- there was a hunt taking place. When morning came, the authorities found the coordinator of cell block 12, Luisito, dead. Mario remained at his post.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

A month later, on March 29, came the eruption. That day there were 14 deaths, all murdered with guns or machetes. Chepe and his people took revenge on Mario, stringing him up, removing his heart and feeding it to his dog. Afterwards, they killed the dog. The head of the old boss ended up on a roof and the charred body under a pile of mattresses in the prison yard. Police -- aware they were walking into a turf war that had nothing to do with them -- only dared to enter the enclosure when the new leaders authorized them to come and clear away the bodies. This is how peace was built in San Pedro Sula prison.

Less than two years after his brutal execution of the old boss, Chepe has earned the praise of both inmates and the authorities because he has put into action medical care plans and has made the prisoners attend educational programs. Every prisoner pays two lempiras ($0.10) a week to cover the cost of medicines for the poorest inmates or for their families on the outside. Absurdly, in a country where few have social security, San Pedro Sula prison guarantees your health insurance. In addition, every inmate pays a fee on Sundays for the cleaning of their cell and the common areas. In the normal cells, this is five lempiras ($0.25), but those that have privileges and private cells pay ten ($0.50) or up to 50 ($2.50) lempiras a week. With this money, the prisoners that clean rooms and toilets receive a small salary.

In mid-2013, the prison authorities said they were going to close the prison education program because they only had 36 students and they needed a minimum of 70. Chepe called a meeting with the whole population and threatened to not sign their letters of good conduct [which are presented at probation hearings] if they did not show him a certificate of studies. [Today there are 140 inmates signed up for the program].

[...]

I asked Chepe about his law, the rules and discipline that keep order in the prison, and if when he says "they beat them," he means "my people beat them." The prison deputy director admits that Chepe and his people are the leaders of the prisoners, the "civil authority"; those that determine what time each prisoner gets up and goes to bed; what times they shower and eat; the quantities of food; who has the right to take part in training activities or professional workshops; who is held in solitary confinement and for how long; what punishment is imposed for every infraction. The prison director, the uniformed men that represent the fiction called the law, only intervene when there is no other option, when the riots last long enough to attract the attention of the television cameras. There is no way to avoid the odd death. There is probably no interest in avoiding the odd death.

[...]

San Pedro Sula has always predominantly been a prison for the paisas -- not gang members. On May 17, 2004, at the height of the iron fist anti-gang policies of then President Ricardo Maduro, an electrical rupture sparked a fire in the sector housing members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang. The guards left the doors locked until 107 gang members were burned alive or choked to death. They also did not ring the fire brigade, who took an hour and a half to arrive. On that day, the paisas understood that even a state as cruel with its prisoners as the Honduran state is hated some prisoners more than others. Unlike in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs have never managed to have their own prisons, and their members serve their time in minority sectors controlled by common prisoners.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of MS13

Still, the country's prisons, overcrowded and corrupt, routinely post murder rates higher than in the rest of the country. For this reason, Chepe is valuable, because the men and the arms he commands have the capacity to administer something that in the hands of the state has exploded. In the 21 months of Chepe's reign, he managed to submit the MS13 and Barrio 18 to his regime, and they do not cross the borders of their sectors. The long arm of Chepe's justice does not reach into the gang's territories, or that of the retired gang members, but the three groups know that if they cause problems on paisa turf they will suffer for it.

[...]

However, times of peace in prison have the consistency of an origami figure, and that is why Chepe passes through his domain always surrounded by ten burly men, smartly dressed, and -- in an open secret known throughout the prison -- armed with more than just knives. If anything were to happen, the prison would probably return to the time of anxiety and power struggles. Or if Chepe were transferred. Or if he were set free -- because in theory, this year Chepe should finally stand trial.

*Excerpts translated and republished with permission from a report originally published in El Faro. Read the full, original report here in Spanish.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

The power of Colombia's elites is founded upon one of the most unequal divisions of land in the world. As of the early 21st century, one percent of landowners own more than half the country's agricultural land.1  Under Spanish rule, Colombia's agriculture was organized on the hacienda...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid...

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Organized crime and the violence associated with it is the preeminent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean today. The region is currently home to six of the most violent countries in the world that are not at war. Four of those countries are in Central America...

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

In a new report based on extensive field research, InSight Crime and the Asociacion para una Sociedad mas Justa have traced how Honduras' two largest gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, are evolving, and how their current modus operandi has resulted in staggering levels of violence...

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Bolivia: the New Hub for Drug Trafficking in South America

Transnational organized crime likes opportunities and little resistance. Bolivia currently provides both and finds itself at the heart of a new criminal dynamic that threatens national and citizen security in this landlocked Andean nation.

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The Urabeños - The Criminal Hybrid

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Mexico's Security Dilemma: The Battle for Michoacan

Faced with the government's failure to rein in the criminals, communities across crime-besieged Mexico have been trying for years to organize effective civic resistance. Michoacan's vigilantes express the most extreme response by society to date, but other efforts have been less belligerent. In battle-torn cities along the...

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

Uruguay's Marijuana Bill Faces Political, Economic Obstacles

If Uruguay's proposal to regulate the production, sale and distribution of marijuana is properly implemented and overcomes political and economic hurdles, it could be the most important drug regulation experiment in decades.