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.
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.