Volunteer firemen remove an injured gang member
Daniel LeClair  /  Reuters
Volunteer firemen remove one of the dozens of injured gang members after a prison riot at "El Hoyon" (The Hole) in Escuintla, Guatemala, on Monday.
updated 8/16/2005 9:04:46 PM ET 2005-08-17T01:04:46

Members of a violent Central American gang on Tuesday 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. Gangs are known as “maras” in Central America.

Herman Ivan Aguirra, 19, a two-year member of Mara 18 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 members against Mara 18 at six other prisons, they said. Most of the injured belonged to Mara 18, according to local media.

‘Easy to buy’
Mara 18 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 Tuesday 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.”

More than a dozen police officers kept watch over the 15 prisoners who remained on the Escuintla Hospital’s second floor Tuesday. Some of the gang members were handcuffed to their gurneys and shouted obscenities at visitors.

Families identify the victims
At a morgue in Escuintla, families arrived Tuesday to identify the bodies of dead inmates.

Relatives wait to hear whether their loved ones are among the dead after a prison riot in Escuintla
Daniel LeClair  /  Reuters
Relatives wait to hear whether their loved ones are among the dead after a prison riot in Escuintla, Guatemala, on Monday.
“There is no security anywhere. Not even prisoners are safe,” said Ingrid Hernandez, who said police told her that her son, 19-year-old Eswin Rolando Hernandez, had been fatally stabbed and shot.

“This is a war, and the gang members are winning,” said Rolando Gamez, 41, who was trying to determine whether his 17-year-old son, Gerardo Gamez, was among the victims.

Raquel Barahona, 24, began to sob violently and rocked back and forth on a concrete stoop outside the morgue after seeing her 20-year-old cousin Josue Magana, identified as one of the victims in an afternoon newspaper.

“Supposedly there is no death penalty (in Guatemala) but a lot of them were killed” in Monday’s violence, she said.

Deaths across the prison system
Those killed included 18 inmates at El Hoyon prison, a former police barracks in Escuintla that at the time of the riots housed about 400 alleged gang members.

Three prisoners died at the Canada Prison Farm, 12 miles south of El Hoyon. Vielmann said eight died in rioting at Guatemala’s top-security Pavon prison, about 15 miles east of the capital.

Two more were stabbed to death at a prison in Mazatenango, 85 miles southwest of the capital, and smaller disturbances were put down at three other prisons, Vielmann said.

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.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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