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Officials Debate Whether Relatives Are Hostages In Guatemalan Prison

March 28, 1989

SANTA CATARINA PINULA, Guatemala (AP) _ Officials differed today on whether hundreds of women and children inside a prison seized by rebellious convicts are hostages or supporters of the uprising.

Government negotiators held a second day of talks with leaders of the rebellion that began Sunday, when friends and relatives of inmates were visiting the prison.

The Roman Catholic priest who is chaplain of Guatemalan prisons said he considered most of the more than 600 visitors still inside Pavon penitentiary ″virtual hostages.″

″Though some are there by choice, the rebellious prisoners know that they (the family members) are their protection. They know that once they are gone, the armed forces could try to retake the facility,″ the Rev. Antonio Lopez Martin said before entering the prison.

Authorities said at least four guards and three inmates were killed and 20 people wounded as prisoners seized about 75 M-1 rifles and tried to escape Sunday.

About 1,000 soldiers and police joined the prison’s 180 guards outside the 2.5 square-mile facility, where inmates were demanding better food and reduced sentences.

Prison spokesman Conrado Monroy told reporters friends and relatives ″fear that if they leave, authorities will take reprisals against the rebel inmates.″

The inspector-general of the National Prisons System, Carlos Ramos Moncada, said he believes the visitors are not hostages.

″They remain there by choice,″ he said. ″The family members still inside are backing the movement.″

Ramos Moncada said 607 people besides the up to 100 rebellious inmates remained inside the prison.

Officials said the visitors on Sunday included more than 150 children, 360 women and 100 men.

Esmirla Cheti, 19, walked out today with her nephew Edgar, 13. She said they were visiting a friend when the uprising occurred and she remained voluntarily for two days.

″But we were also afraid about what might happen if we tried to leave,″ she said. ″We were going to leave last night, but they (the prisoners) told us to wait until morning.″

She said some people have food in the prison, but other people were going hungry.

President Vinicio Cerezo ordered prison and other authorities ″to exhaust every alternative″ in negotiating a solution.

Ramos Moncada said Monday night that ″serious problems remain″ in resolving the standoff. ″(The rebels) must reform their conduct and surrender the weapons.″

He said six people who were hostages - four doctors and two firefighters - were released at midday Monday. He said the rest of the people inside the prison were considered to be supporting the uprising.

On Monday night, inmates escorted 15 adults and four children out of the prison.

Ramos Moncada said the rebellious prisoners had about 75 M-1 rifles taken from prison guard dormitories.

He said their demands - for better food and reduced sentences - had not changed since Sunday and that they did not demand a plane to fly to Cuba as reported by a local radio station.

The roughly 1,250 prisoners who did not take part in the uprising apparently remained in areas of the prison outside the rebels’ control.

Clementina Diaz and her 2-year-old son, Miguel Angel, were among those who left the prison Monday night.

Mrs. Diaz, who was visiting her eldest son Gerardo on Sunday, said she left because her little boy had a fever. She said inmates asked visitors if they had health problems that made their stay impossible.

Another visitor who left, Alicia Rodriguez, cried as she spoke from inside a Red Cross van outside the gate. She had been visiting her husband.

″I was sick from nerves,″ she said to explain her departure.

Update hourly