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Honduran Inmates Riot, Escape

February 12, 1998

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ Scores of inmates rioted at a prison in northern Honduras on Wednesday, and 243 of them _ armed with AK-47s _ fled into nearby hills after overwhelming guards and setting a building on fire.

Two prisoners were wounded during the breakout from El Porvenir prison near La Ceiba, and a third was captured several hours later.

Roadblocks were set up around La Ceiba, 190 miles north of Tegucigalpa, and the army was called in. A big contingent of police rushed to the prison just as the inmates were breaking out.

It was not immediately known how many prisoners rioted all together. The prison, which was designed for 300 inmates, currently houses about 500.

Deputy Interior Minister Alberto Reconco Venegas told reporters the prisoners were demanding the immediate release of the prison director, who has been jailed since December.

The director, Jorge Martinez, had been popular with the prisoners because he allowed home leaves and frequent visits from relatives. Honduran authorities believed he was too lenient and prosecuted him on charges of abuse of authority. He was replaced in December by an army captain.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the inmates broke out, but they were able to overwhelm the guards and set a food storage building on fire before making off with at least 10 AK-47 assault rifles, Reconco said.

National Police spokesman Lt. Wilmer Suazo said police and 200 army troops were searching at least nine towns in the area.

``A big operation has been set up, and we are even combing the mountains nearby,″ he said.

The national director of prisons, Romelia Espinal de Artica, blamed the breakout on lax security _ only about 15 guards were on duty at the time _ and noted that the inmates had tried unsuccessfully to riot on Saturday.

``The authorities there should have been on alert,″ she said.

Reconco estimated about half the fugitives were considered dangerous, having been charged with violent crimes, with the rest charged with less serious offenses such as petty theft.

Most were either on trial or awaiting sentencing.

De Artica complained that the delays in sentencing are at the root of Honduras’ prison problems, though she said bad food and medical care also had rendered the prisons ``a disaster.″

There were eight jail mutinies in Honduras in 1997.

``The majority of inmates are on trial and have not been sentenced in more than 10 years,″ de Artica said. ``They are desperate.″

Honduras’ 24 prisons house more than 10,000 inmates, only 10 percent of whom have been sentenced, she said.

The buildings date back to Spanish colonial times, and in many about 200 inmates are crowded into space meant for 50 people, she said.

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