Homemade grenades started exploding midmorning on Aug. 18 at La Esperanza, El Salvador’s largest prison, and the 3,200 inmates locked inside the overcrowded cage stampeded to escape the blasts and the fireballs. A battle between 400 members of a notorious street gang, Mara 18, and the rest of the inmates had erupted after weeks of tension. Hundreds of inmates took up shivs and shanks fashioned from broken wooden chapel benches and steel bed frames. When the killing was over, 31 inmates lay dead, some scalped and mutilated beyond recognition, reports the Washington Post.
The deadly riot was Central America’s fourth major prison uprising in 20 months. The riots, in which 216 inmates were hacked, decapitated, burned or shot to death, are the latest evidence that violent street gangs are overwhelming the poor countries of this region. From neighborhoods where menacing, tattooed youths extort money from fearful residents to out-of-control prisons where gang members fabricate grenades, street gangs are the top security concern. The use of crack cocaine is blamed for driving up the level of violence and the savagery of gang crimes in the past two years, and several Central American governments have responded with massive law enforcement operations.