A prison riot in Guatemala highlights a broken system that continues to suffer from overcrowding, rising violence and a lack of organizational leadership — all of which likely exacerbates the nation’s gang problems.
The riot occurred on October 6 at the high-security Boquerón prison in the Santa Rosa Department of Guatemala. Inmates began the disturbance after an announcement regarding new security measures, but security forces eventually restored a semblance of order, reported elPeriódico.
This riot comes as amid ongoing problems in Guatemala’s penetentiary system. According to statistics from the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuraduría de los Derechos Humanos – PDH) reported by Prensa Libre, problems of overcrowding and violence are endemic in many prisons.
The penitentiary system as a whole is operating at 200 percent over capacity. Boquerón, where the riot took place, is currently operating at nearly 600 percent over capacity, reported Prensa Libre.
According to the PDH, part of the reason for the overcrowding is the large number of prisoners who are in pre-trial detention, as well as those who have served their sentences but for various reasons have not been released. Fifty-two percent of prisoners spend at least 10 months in pre-trail detention, according to the PDH report, which also notes that pre-trial detention “tends to be disproportionately applied to low-income individuals.”
Speaking to Prensa Libre, Gerardo Villamar Ramírez, a due process expert at the PDH, highlighted the lack of resources devoted to prison system.
“In Preventative Zone 18, there are 4,800 inmates and only 80 guards. Only about 30 of these guards stay near the prison center, as the others go out to hearings, hospitals and to other duties,” said Ramírez. “In practice, inside the prisons, a defendant has to attempt to coexist with everyone else because there is an absence of the state.”
In addition, 2016 has seen a marked increase in violent deaths behind bars. Between 2010 and 2014, the prison system recorded 23 violent deaths. So far this year, there have been at least 40. One of the most prominent cases was the July murder of the “king” of the Pavón prison, Byron Lima.
The prison system, which houses more than 20,000 inmates, has had virtually no leadership for over a year. In July 2015, the Interior Ministry decided to terminate the contracts of directors and deputy directors to save resources. According to security analyst Corinne Dedik, authorities have rotated guards in as interim directors rather than hiring permanent administrators.
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High rates of prison overpopulation in Guatemala and other countries in Latin America have been fueled by heavy-handed security policies and overuse of pre-trial detention. This dynamic has been credited with facilitating criminal activity in Guatemala, as poorly-managed prisons have become recruitment centers for the nation’s street gangs — a phenomenon that has also been observed in other prison systems in the region.
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While security forces were able to contain the recent attempted uprising at Boquerón, the incident serves as a warning about the potential consequences of leaving these long-standing problems unaddressed. Riots at prisons in countries with similar problems of overcrowding and poor management, like Mexico and Brazil, frequently turn deadly.
The lesson may be that investing in alleviating overcrowding and improving prison management could prove less costly for governments in the long run than attempting to respond to these violent incidents on an ad hoc basis.