The recent murder of dozens of women in Honduras’ only all-female prison took place in a context of growing gang tensions that had been underestimated by authorities.
On the morning of June 20, a group of women allegedly linked to the Barrio 18 gang set fire to a module of the National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation (Penitenciaría Nacional Femenina de Adaptación Social – PNFAS) in Támara, Honduras.
The attackers also fired guns at other women. At least 48 women were killed, according to a statement on Twitter from the Honduran Attorney General’s Office.
Most of the women burned to death were in a prison wing designated specifically for members of the MS13, one of Central America’s most powerful gangs. The area was reportedly completely gutted by the fire, according to prison officials contacted by InSight Crime.
Drawing on the testimonies of one of the survivors and Dania Ordóñez, president of the Association of Prisoners Deprived of Liberty, the Honduran media reported that high-caliber weapons, explosives, and machetes were used in the attack. Authorities have still not given an official version of the incident.
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In response to the massacre, Vice Minister of Security Julissa Villanueva declared a state of emergency and authorized the Honduran army and police to take over the prison.
“What happened today is the product of an attack by organized crime,” Villanueva told journalists during a press conference.
President Xiomara Castro also dismissed Security Minister Ramón Sabillón.
This incident is shaping up to be the deadliest massacre in a female prison in Latin America and is the second massacre to occur in PNFAS in recent years. In May 2020, Barrio 18 gang members murdered six MS13 women.
At the time, the spokeswoman for the National Penitentiary Institute told InSight Crime that such violence was rare, as the women in the prison were considered “a passive population.”
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The massacre at PNFAS has shown that underestimating the role of women in perpetrating violence can have lethal results.
InSight Crime visited PNFAS in April 2023 and interviewed 30 inmates from various wings of the prison, as well as staff. During that time, the team observed gang violence and clear tension between MS13 and Barrio 18 inmates.
This led the authorities to extend a state of exception and authorize military intervention in these centers. However, this strategy was not replicated at the women’s prison, despite fears among inmates and staff that the violence could escalate.
“We are afraid, we don’t sleep. This prison is like a time bomb,” an MS13 gang member told InSight Crime at the time.
Barrio 18 is the most dominant gang in PNFAS. Its members are dominant in four of the prison’s 12 wings and allegedly have informants in the rest, according to the inmates. In addition, during the visit, InSight Crime confirmed that Barrio 18 leaders are often free to walk the corridors, unlike other inmates.
After the 2020 massacre, all the women linked to MS13 were held in Module 1, which is isolated from the other sections of the prison. Until a few days ago, just over 100 women lived in overcrowded conditions, unable to leave their area and with little or no communication with authorities.
Some of them were active gang members, others had retired, and a minority were held there because they came from a neighborhood where the MS13 dominates, without having been part of the gang.
Many of these women had already been intimidated and verbally threatened by members of Barrio 18 and felt that the authorities were not doing enough to protect them.
“[The authorities] don’t care about this prison,” said a former MS13 member who was one of the women injured during the confrontation in April. “Here we have elderly people, people in wheelchairs and pregnant women. If something happens, how are they going to run?”