Gang members ran a prison call center and monitored a lake full of crocodiles, Guatemalan officials say

Guatemalan police on Sunday transferred more than 200 gang members from a prison where they operated a criminal call center, raised chickens and guarded a crocodile-filled lake.

Some 400 police officers took part in the operation to free 225 members of the Barrio 18 gang from the prison nicknamed “El Infiernito” or Little Hell, where they had access to luxury goods such as televisions and refrigerators, and even raising chickens, officials said.

View of two crocodiles rescued after a raid at the “El Infiernito” prison in Escuintla, Guatemala, June 2, 2024.

JOHAN ORDEREZ/AFP via Getty Images

“The prison belongs to the country again,” Interior Minister Francisco Jiménez announced on social networks.

He promised the facility would be demolished and rebuilt to become a “real maximum security prison,” writing on social media: “These are prisons, NOT a vacation.”

Videos and images of the facility released by authorities show that inmates even had air conditioning in Escuintla prison, about 70 kilometers south of the capital.

During a previous search, police disabled a makeshift “call center” from which gangsters carried out extortion and ordered crimes.

The minister accused “previous governments” of having “handed over control of prisons to criminals”.

The operation took place just days after new President Bernardo Arevalo said parts of Guatemala City were being held “prisoners” by gangs, as the UN called for an end to the recruitment of minors by criminal groups .

Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs are fighting in Guatemala for control of territories where they extort money from businesses and individuals, killing those who refuse, authorities say.

Criminal violence cost the lives of 4,361 people in the country in 2023, a rate of 25 per 100,000 inhabitants, half of which is attributed to gang fighting and drug trafficking.

Guatemala’s prisons have been plagued by violence in recent years.

In 2021, police said at least seven prisoners were killed during a fight between rival gangs at a prison in Quetzaltenango, the BBC reported. Most of them were beheaded when members of the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs attacked each other.

In 2020, imprisoned members of the Barrio 18 gang took 10 guards hostage in retaliation for the transfer of some of their leaders to another prison. The guards were later released.

In 2019, at least seven people were killed in a prison shooting near the Guatemalan capital, Guatemala City. In 2016, a prison riot in Guatemala left at least eight dead and more than 20 injured.


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