FROM beheaded bodies to bloody-thirsty gang lords, a man who has aeen inside Honduras and El Salvador’s infamous prisons has revealed they are hell on earth.
Marcel Osorto, an investigative journalist from Honduras, told The Sun of the horrors he saw after entering the jails after their “darkest and deadliest days”.
Osorto has devoted years to researching organised crime in his country and its neighbouring so-called “prison state” of El Salvador.
He has seen first-hand both the terror and ruthlessness the armed gangs inflict on the outside and the carnage and control they continue to wield behind bars.
Both countries – torn apart by armed violence – have recently embarked on aggressive policies to lock up any suspected gang members and throw away the key.
In Honduras, the result has been hellhole, super-max prisons held hostage from the inside by merciless members of warring factions packed in together like sardines.
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“First of all you should know that the prisons are governed by two criminal structures – the 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18) and The Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13),” Orsoto explained.
These gangster forces make up most of the incarcerated population, and have spent decades at war both on the streets and behind bars.
Inside the prisons, it can be like living in a warzone.
The director of El Salvador’s largest prison, Esperanza, once told him how gang members “massacred their guards, tore off one’s head and played soccer with it.”
And even in their cells, Osorto described how imprisoned crime lords can still bring huge swaths of Honduras “to its knees”.
He said: “Most of the murder orders come from prisons, which is where the ringleaders are.
“They order the extortion, murder and invasion of whole neighbourhoods due to the access to communication they have.”
They’re locked up and still able to “generate pure terror in the population,” Orsoto added.
All of this is often done “in collusion with authorities, be it police, prosecutors or public officials”.
Just imagine the horrors inside Honduras’ 26 prisons that are “overcrowded with 149 per cent over capacity,” he said.
They control everything inside. “There are complete markets selling food, liquor, beers, drugs, weapons, cell phones – everything you can imagine.”
In one prison, MS-13 even set up their own camera system to protect themselves from threats outside the prison.
INSIDE THE SLAUGHTER
Civilians are usually not allowed inside Honduras’ lawless prisons.
But Osorto was one of the only to enter the Támara jail in the wake of the deadliest massacre ever recorded in a female prison in Latin America.
On the morning of June 20, 46 women were slaughtered at a prison just north of Honduras’ capital of Tegucigalpa after a violent clash broke out between warring gangs.
With the help of their male counterparts who broke in, Barrio 18 gangsters lit a fire that tore through the facility as they exploded out of their cells with machetes, bats and guns to attack their Ms-13 rivals.
In the smoky chaos, all hell broke loose inside the 900-inmate prison as helpless victims were sprayed with gunfire, hacked to death and 27 of them burnt alive.
“It was one of the darkest days in the History of Honduras,” Orsoto said as he recalled walking into its hellish aftermath.
“There were bodies piled up in a bathroom, charred women who ended their last days in this world hugging, or others who ended up underneath their beds in their desperation to escape the flames.”
After hours spent listening to the victims, he told of women were gunned down by gang members who were “armed to the teeth” as they prayed to God to save their lives.
Other female inmates were forced to jump out windows and break their bodies in desperation to get away from the fire.
Afterwards, he said, the survivors only spoke of “hatred and thirst for revenge”.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro denounced the “monstrous murder of women by gangs in full view and tolerance of security authorities.”
She accused the prison guards of having prior knowledge of the attack and abetting the gangs in their killing spree.
A state of emergency was announced, curfews installed across the country and Castro transferred the control of the prisons to the army.
Footage splashed across the world of skinhead gang inmates sitting half-naked on the floor in tight rows as the army swept through the nation’s prisons searching for weapons.
Thousands of rounds of ammunition, pistols, assault rifles, grenades, cash and jewellery were found hidden inside their cramped cages – the seizures amounting to more than £7million worth of contraband.
The sweeps are part of the “Fe y Esperanza” operation (“Faith and Hope”) to take back control of prisons and begin an El Slavador-style crackdown on gangs.
For 20 months, El Salvador has also enacted a state of emergency to fight gang violence after decades of warfare, bloodshed and terror caused by the same gangs that rule Honduras.
“Life was gangs, everyone had a connection to someone that was in one – a brother, a cousin,” Josue Sanchez, an expert in criminal governance from Florida International University told The Sun.
In March last year, a truce broke down between MS-13, Barrio 18 and the government leading to its bloodiest day in decades as 60 people were shot dead.
In response, whole towns were invaded by the army who threw 70,000 people – 2 per cent of the population and 7 per cent of the male population aged between 14 and 29 – behind bars.
The mass arrests have earnt El Salvador the highest incarceration rate in the world – but violence levels took a plunge.
This unforgiving approach is central to the hugely popular, but controversial President Nayib Bukele’s “war on gangs” to end what he calls the “terrorist rule” over his state.
The fresh leader, 42, styles himself as “the coolest dictator in the world” and has helped to halve the murder rate which still remarkably sits at the highest in the world.
“Prisons are his marketing,” said Sanchez. “He says ‘look what I’ve done, look at this super-max prison I built, look at the control we now have.”
He turned prisons that were “headquarters for gangs” into their nightmares.
“He sells that story of security,” he added.
The inhumane and humiliating conditions that alleged gang members are kept in is part of his intention to strike fear in the heart of their criminal networks, he explained.
For some, their only crime might have been to be at the wrong place at the wrong time or to have once got gang-affiliated tattoos.
Rights groups believe that between 10,000 to 15,000 innocent people were caught up in Bukele’s offensive.
“You don’t hear an outcry,” Sanchez said. “If wrongful detentions are the price the population pay for security and peace, they are willing to pay it.”
“People don’t mind if their cousin is thrown in prison if it brings us safety. And everyone is scared to end up in those inhumane prisons themselves.”
In February, shocking pictures showed ultra-violent gang members packed together like sardines into the “world’s largest” mega-prison reserved for the highest-ranking members of MS-13 and Barrio 18.
The new 57-acre “inescapable” Cecot jail is able to house up to 40,000 gangsters stuffed inside 156-man cells that are guarded day and night by 850 police officers and soldiers.
What is known about the grim conditions inside has sparked criticism from human rights groups, especially considering the government’s assurances that those who walk in will never walk out.
“Let all the ‘human rights’ NGOs know that we are going to wipe out these bloody murderers and their collaborators.
“We will put them in prison and they will never get out.
“We will heal our country and eliminate this plague completely. Take your failed recipes elsewhere,” President Bukele responded to objections on X/Twitter in May.
However, Sanchez – who has done research inside prisons in both countries – believes Honduras will never be able to pull off what its neighbour did.
“You can tell the difference in El Salvador. It was a complete 180 degree turn – everything changed.”
Despite the “show” of force, he said that the reality inside Honduras’ prisons is business-as-usual.
The gang leaders might be locked up but they are still running operations and ordering aggressive bloodshed.
“The gang’s collusion with police and authorities is so deeply embedded and paid for by the huge drug industry.”
Honduras now plans to build the only island prison colony in the Western hemisphere to send 2,000 of its most-feared prisoners.
By imprisoning crime lords on an archipelago 155 miles off the coast, the government hopes to cut the head of the snake and end their connection with the outside world.
Sanchez laughed at this. “What will it solve?”
“There are better ways to address the fact they cannot control their own prisons.”