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Inmates Are No Longer in Charge

Police and troops storm a Guatemala prison that had become a luxurious home for criminals.

September 26, 2006|From Reuters

FRAIJANES, Guatemala — Security forces Monday seized a prison run for more than 10 years by inmates who had built their own town complete with restaurants, churches, stores and illegal drug labs.

Seven prisoners were killed when 3,000 police and soldiers firing automatic weapons stormed the Pavon prison.

For years, corrupt guards patrolled the perimeter of the prison and ran the administration section, but an "order committee" of inmates controlled the rest. They smuggled in food, drink and luxury goods.

"The people who live here live better than all of us on the outside. They've even got pubs," said soldier Tomas Hernandez.

Police officers supported by army helicopters and armored cars transferred Pavon's 1,600 inmates to another prison. Police had not been inside Pavon, on the outskirts of Fraijanes, since 1996.

The inmates who died were killed in a shootout at the two-story wooden chalet of a convicted Colombian drug trafficker knows as "El Loco."

The Colombian had a widescreen television and high-speed Internet.

Pavon was originally built for 800 inmates who could grow their own food. But the prison population increased over time, and inmates began to build their own homes.

Guards let prisoners bring in whatever they wanted, and inmates set up laboratories to produce cocaine and alcohol.

National prison director Alejandro Giammattei said he had asked prosecutors to investigate all of the estimated 80 guards.

"It is degrading, inhuman and a mess here. Totally without authority," President Oscar Berger said.

Inmates extorted money and kidnapped victims on the outside by giving orders via cellphone.

Police seized hundreds of phones and large quantities of the chemical acetone, used in the production of cocaine.

Officers killed Luis Alfonso Zepeda, a convicted murderer who headed the "order committee."

Zepeda earned about $25,000 a month from extortion, renting out prison grounds to other inmates and drug trafficking, police said.

His son Samuel lived in the prison to help run the crime empire, even though he was never sent there by a court.

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