Honduras adopts El Salvador-style tactics in anti-gang crackdown on prison inmates

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Authorities in Honduras forced inmates to sit half-naked in tight rows while they searched for contraband in a sweep of prisons Monday, similar to the harsh tactics of neighboring El Salvador. They also arrested a suspect in a weekend pool hall shooting that killed 11 people.

The prison sweep demonstrated the Honduran government’s resolve to crack down on gangs following last week’s gang-related massacre of 46 female inmates in the worst atrocity at a women’s prison in recent memory. Police said they were considering the possibility that the pool hall shooting on Saturday was related to the prison violence.

On Monday, the military police — who have taken charge of the nation’s prisons — fanned out across several prisons, emptying cell blocks and forcing inmates to sit in rows, spread-legged and nestled against one another. Some were forced to keep their heads bowed and their hands on the back of their necks.

Such tactics — with inmates clad only in shorts, their heads bowed onto the backs of the men in front of them — were made famous last year by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele during his crackdown on gangs. Bukele's harsh tactics have led to allegations of human rights abuses but also proved popular with residents in the Central American country where communities are emerging from the oppression of gang extortion and violence.

The military police said they searched the empty cellblocks and found hundreds of rounds of ammunition, pistols, assault rifles and grenades. As in El Salvador, police distributed videos of the prison raids, accompanied by music.

Even women inmates were forced to sit in prison yards with their hands on their necks, but female military police officers allowed them to keep their shirts on.

One search took place at a men's penitentiary in Tamara, the same town where the women's prison massacre occurred Tuesday.

The massacre at the women's prison in Tamara, northeast of Honduras' capital, outraged the country and sparked raids, curfews and a crackdown.

In that massacre, female inmates belonging to the Barrio 18 street gang smuggled in guns, machetes and a flammable liquid. They subdued guards and burst into cellblocks housing members of a rival gang. They sprayed the victims with gunfire, hacked to death others and then locked their cells and set the victims on fire.

While Saturday's killings at a pool hall in the city of Choloma, in Cortes province, happened far to the north of Tamara, the two events could be related, according to the police.

National Police Commissioner Miguel Pérez Suazo said authorities have detained one suspect in the pool hall killings and were looking for others.

“We do not rule out these crimes could be some sort of revenge for what happened in the women's prison,” Pérez Suazo said. Choloma is reputed to be the turf of the Barrio 18 gang, which would make it a logical place to target their members.

But police said the suspect detained Monday also allegedly belonged to Barrio 18. And Pérez Suazo said “we also do no rule out that it could have been some type of revenge by criminals against civilians.”

Honduran President Xiomara Castro has put the military police in charge of the country's poorly-run prisons and given them a year to train new guards.

She also announced security measures including curfews in the Choloma area, as well as “raids, captures and checkpoints 24 hours a day.” The curfew in Choloma will run from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. The curfew in the nearby city of San Pedro Sula will begin on July 4.