- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

GUATEMALA CITY — Anxious family members lined up outside a morgue yesterday to identify the bodies of 31 young male prisoners killed during near-simultaneous gang riots in seven Guatemalan prisons.

The violence, which demonstrated the strength of Central American gangs, began Monday with two grenade explosions at a makeshift prison for gang members. That was followed by coordinated attacks by Mara Salvatrucha gang members against the rival MS-18 gang at other prisons, Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann and Escuintla Gov. Luis Alberto Munoz said.

Guatemalans lined up yesterday outside a small pink-and-white building that served as a morgue to identify the dead inmates.

“There is no security anywhere. Not even prisoners are safe,” said Ingrid Hernandez, 31, who waited with eight other family members to identify the body of her son, 19-year-old gang member Eswin Rolando Hernandez.

“This is a war, and the gang members are winning,” said Rolando Gamez, 41, who waited to see whether his son, Gerardo Gamez, 17, was among the victims.

At El Hoyon Prison, the converted former police barracks where 400 purported gang members were housed when the attacks began, authorities rummaged through piles of trash, foul-smelling mattresses and clothes in search of weapons and clues.

Eighteen inmates died within about 45 minutes at the prison, which is in downtown Escuintla, a provincial capital 30 miles south of the capital, Guatemala City.

Officials said gang members used cell phones and text messages passed by visitors to coordinate the near-simultaneous rioting in the prisons.

Three prisoners were reported killed at the Canada Prison Farm, 10 miles south of El Hoyon. Mr. Vielmann said eight died in rioting at Guatemala’s top-security Pavon prison, about 15 miles east of the capital. Two more were stabbed to death at a prison in Mazatenango, 85 miles southwest of the capital, officials said.

Mr. Vielmann said smaller disturbances were quashed at three other prisons.

MS-18 is a violent street gang similar to MS-13, but is a combination of Mara Salvatrucha members and members of the 18th Street Gang. They are two of the most prominent gangs in Central America.

The FBI has estimated that there are 50,000 to 70,000 members of MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang in El Salvador and Honduras.

Law-enforcement officials in Guatemala said the gangs emerged in Los Angeles and later spread to Central America, when criminal migrants were deported back home.

• Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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