TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Honduran President Porfirio Lobo ordered the militarization of the country's main prison on Saturday after a riot there left at least three gang members dead and three guards injured.
The aim of the measure, which involves putting soldiers in charge of the prison's security, is to "end the rein of criminals in our prison system, which has done so much damage to our society," Lobo said in a statement.
Police spokesman Miguel Martinez said members of the 18 gang clashed with common criminals Saturday in Honduras' National Penitentiary, which houses 3,351 inmates and is located 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Three gang members were killed in the violence and nine injured, director of penitentiaries Simeon Flores said in a press conference, adding that three guards were wounded by gunfire.
Oscar Triminio, a spokesman for the fire department whose ambulances took away the dead and wounded, said he didn't know if there were more victims inside the prison.
Flores also didn't discount the possibility that the death toll could rise because authorities were still carrying out "a cell-by-cell review to find out what happened."
A contingent of 70 soldiers and police was sent to guard the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa, where injured gang members were taken, for fear that the gang would try to rescue their comrades.
"We have detected cars with armed men inside passing by the hospital and for this reason we are increasing security measures to avoid a tragedy," Martinez said.
The riot and militarization of the prison comes a day after the release of an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report that said that inmates control Honduras' 24 prisons because the state has abandoned its role in rehabilitating people convicted of crimes.
The commission said that one consequence of the state's abandonment of the prisons is the rise of so-called systems of "self-governance" that are headed by inmates known as "coordinators." The coordinators are picked by the inmates and set rules for the prison, including disciplinary measures.
The report said that some prisons are so poorly guarded that the inmates could escape if they wanted to, but they don't because they don't want to upset the balance.
The commission conducted the report following a fire last year at the Comayagua prison that killed 361 inmates.
The government says there are 12,263 people incarcerated in Honduras even though its prisons can only hold 8,120 inmates. Killings, riots and corruption are common.
Honduran prisons operate on a Lord-of-the-Flies system that allows inmates to run businesses behind bars, while officials turn a blind eye in exchange for a cut of the profits they say is spent on prison needs. This culture virtually guarantees that little is likely to change, even in the glare of international scrutiny over last year's fire at Comayagua prison.