Forensic police arrive at the Tela prison in Honduras on December 21, 2019; officials said overnight fighting between rival gangs had claimed at least 18 lives. (Photo: AFP)
At least 18 inmates died and 16 were injured in overnight clashes between prisoners in Honduras after fighting erupted at a jail in the northern port town of Tela, prison officials said Saturday.
The National Penitentiary Institute said 17 prisoners had died at the facility and another died in hospital, with local media describing the unrest as gang violence.
It was not clear what sparked the melee at the prison in Tela, about 120 miles (200 kilometres) from Tegucigalpa, the capital of the small Central American country.
Prison officials had originally reported only three deaths, but the toll quickly rose. A statement Saturday identified 14 of the dead and 15 wounded by name.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, grappling with a recent wave of prison killings, had ordered the army and the police on Tuesday to take full control of the country's 27 prisons, which are badly overcrowded with some 21,000 inmates.
But as of Friday, the military had yet to take complete control of the Tela detention center, according to a prison spokesperson, Digna Aguilar.
Hernandez announced the crackdown after the killings on December 14 of five members of feared gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) by a fellow detainee at the high-security prison in La Tolva, 25 miles east of Tegucigalpa.
That came just a day after Pedro Idelfonso Armas, the warden of El Pozo -- the country's main high-security prison, in the western city of Santa Barbara -- had been murdered.
The Ministry of Security had suspended Armas shortly before that amid an investigation into his presence during the October 26 killing by prisoners of Magdaleno Meza, a drug kingpin whose confession and notebooks linked him to a brother of the president, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernandez.
Meza's account books were entered as evidence in the New York trial of Hernandez, who was subsequently convicted on four counts of drug trafficking. He faces sentencing -- possibly for life -- in January.
President Hernandez condemned the conviction of his younger brother, saying it was based on "the testimony of confessed assassins."
A video circulating on social media shows the 52-year-old Armas talking with Meza when prison guards opened a locked gate, allowing a dozen inmates to enter and stab and fatally shoot the drug trafficker.
In addition, a lawyer who had represented Meza and other members of the Valle Valle drug cartel, Jose Luis Pinto, was killed in an attack December 9 in a town northwest of Tegucigalpa. That killing remains under investigation.
Honduras has been plagued by drug trafficking, gangs, poverty and corruption.
It suffers from one of the highest homicide rates in the world outside areas of armed conflict, having registered 41.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018.
To fight this scourge, President Hernandez created a military police force financed by a new tax, and built special prisons for gang members.
The sky-high crime rate has been a key factor behind a wave of migration toward the United States, notably by minors who say they fear being forced into gangs.