San Pedro Sula, Honduras—A real estate broker might describe the state penitentiary here as centrally located. From the prison, it’s a quick ride to the barrios, where many of the inmates and guards live when they’re not inside its crumbling concrete walls—and also to the fortified residential compounds at the foot of the lush green hills that surround this city, the second largest in Honduras. When there’s a riot at the prison, the sirens can be heard in the mansions and the slums alike.
There are often riots at the prison. The most recent one, in May, started when a dispute broke out, allegedly over a woman who’d been smuggled into one of the cell blocks. That ended relatively peacefully, after the bishop of San Pedro Sula negotiated with the inmates to put away their weapons (which are as easy to smuggle into the prison as cell phones, pets, and women). Only one prisoner was killed. A riot in late March was bloodier. Thirteen people died, including a man who was decapitated before his head was tossed in front of the prison gates. According to local news reports, he was a former leader of a faction of prisoners who had become so unpopular they rose up against him. They also killed his dog. “The prisoners rule,” assistant prison director Carlos Polanco told the Associated Press in May. “We only handle external security.”
Honduras is plagued by such stories. According to a United Nations report last year, Honduras is now the deadliest place in the world. Per capita, more ...