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Old 08-16-2005, 07:11 PM   #1
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Prison Riots in Guatemala

One of those horrific reminders of how deep the damage from a civil war can run, even when it's supposedly long over. Most of these gangs were founded by former child soldiers from one or another of the many militias (government or otherwise) active in Central America during the '80s and '90s.

Tue Aug 16, 2005 5:31 PM ET

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala wants to build new maximum-security prisons to prevent the kinds of clashes between grenade-tossing gang members that killed at least 33 inmates this week.

Hundreds of members of the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 gangs attacked each other with grenades, guns and knives in at least six Guatemalan prisons on Monday. Many of the bodies were covered with shrapnel wounds from grenade blasts, and at least one of the dead had his eyes gouged out, witnesses said.

The battles started after the breakdown of a prison peace pact between the gangs, known as "maras," which have gone on a rampage of theft, murder and rape in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent years. Easily available weapons, rampant poverty and a culture of violence left over from a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996 all help make Guatemala, with a population of around 12 million, one of the world's most violent countries. Some 10 people are murdered in the Central American country every day.

Critics said that even with a new law, it would be hard for cash-strapped Guatemala to find the resources needed to build and run hi-tech prisons.

Aug. 16, 2005, 3:58PM

ESCUINTLA, Guatemala (Associated Press) — Members of a violent Central American gang today claimed they routinely pay prison guards to provide them with weapons, and they blamed a rival group for starting coordinated riots at seven prisons that left 31 inmates dead.

Interviewed as they recovered from gunshot and stab wounds, members of the Mara 18 blamed Monday's near-simultaneous uprisings at Guatemalan prisons on the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang. Gangs are known as "maras" in Central America.

Herman Ivan Aguirra, 19, a two-year member of the Mara 18 gang from Guatemala City, said he and other prisoners were exercising when Mara Salvatrucha members seemingly came out of nowhere wielding knives, guns and grenades. "They hit me hard," Aguirra said. "There was blood everywhere, people dying, people screaming."

Monday's violence began with two grenade explosions at a prison for gang members known as El Hoyon in Escuintla, officials said. It was followed by coordinated attacks by Mara Salvatrucha gang members against the Mara 18 gang at six other prisons, they said. Most of the injured belonged to Mara 18, according to local media.

Mara 18 gang members recovering at the Escuintla Hospital said the two gangs are always fighting each other and that guards help them by providing them with weapons in exchange for bribes. "(The guards) are very easy to buy," said 24-year-old Ismael Lopez, one of at least 26 gang members stabbed, shot or beaten at three prisons in Escuintla, a provincial capital 30 miles south of Guatemala City.

Officials did not respond immediately to the allegations. Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann said earlier today that prison visitors smuggled in guns and passed along messages to inmates in other facilities, while some of the prisoners used cell phones to help launch the riots. Vielmann said Monday's attacks showed the organizational power of the gangs, which have spread terror throughout much of the region, prompting harsh official crackdowns. "The gangs maintain constant communication," he said. "They have a Web page and not only synchronize in Guatemala, they synchronize with El Salvador, Honduras and with the United States." Law enforcement officials say the gangs emerged in Los Angeles and later spread to Central America when criminal migrants were deported back home.

Aguirra and others said violence is simply a way of life for the gangs. He belongs, he said because "I like the crazy life."
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