Gang members at prison operated call center and monitored crocodile-filled lake, Guatemala officials say

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

Some 400 police were involved in the operation to move 225 members of the Barrio 18 gang out of the prison nicknamed “El Infiernito” or Little Hell, where they enjoyed access to such luxuries as TV sets and fridges, even raising chickens, officials said.

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

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images

“The prison once again belongs to the country,” Interior Minister Francisco Jimenez announced on social media.

He vowed the facility would be stripped down and rebuilt as a “real maximum security prison,” writing on social media: “These are prisons, NOT holidays.”

Video and images of the facility released by officials showed the inmates even had air conditioning at the prison in Escuintla, some 43 miles south of the capital.

In a previous search, police had disabled a makeshift “call center” from where the gangsters had committed extortion and ordered crimes to be committed.

The minister blamed “previous governments” for “handing over control of prisons to criminals.”

The operation came just days after new President Bernardo Arevalo said some areas of Guatemala City were being held “prisoner” by gangs, as the U.N. called for a stop to the recruitment of minors by criminal groups.

The Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs are fighting in Guatemala over control for territory where they extort money from companies and individuals — killing those who refuse, according to authorities.

Criminal violence claimed 4,361 lives in the country in 2023 — a rate of 25 per 100,000 inhabitants — half of them 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 in a jail in Quetzaltenango, the BBC reported. Most of them were beheaded as 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 shooting at a prison near the Guatemalan capital Guatemala City. In 2016, a riot at a prison in Guatemala left at least eight inmates dead and more than 20 injured.

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