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60 Die in Honduras Jail Riot - 2003-04-06

At least 60 people are reported dead as a result of a riot and fire at a prison in northern Honduras. The riot began with a clash between members of rival gangs who were serving time in the prison.

The disturbance occurred at the El Porvenir prison, near the northern port city of La Ceiba, about 350 kilometers north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Authorities say the riot began with a fist fight between members of two rival street gangs, the Mara 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha. Some gang members set fire to mattresses and furniture in their cells, starting a blaze that soon grew out of control.

Dozens of inmates died from smoke inhalation or in the fire itself. Doctors at a nearby hospital treated scores of injured inmates. Some prison officials were also among the injured. It took firefighters three hours to bring the blaze at the prison under control.

Prison spokesman Leonel Sauceda says much of what happened in the riot remains unclear and that an investigation is underway. He blamed at least some of the deaths and injuries on inmates wielding homemade knives and other weapons.

The street gangs constitute the biggest public security problem for Honduras. Experts estimate that there are 450 youth gangs in Honduras, with as many as 100,000 members. The gangs are involved in robberies and drug trafficking, among other crimes. Authorities say the gangs are also responsible for hundreds of murders that have taken place in the impoverished Central American nation in the last five years.

Experts say the violence results from clashes between gangs disputing territory in towns and cities. Non-governmental organizations, however, blame at least some of the murders on police.