San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

7 Dead as Guatemalan Gov’t Retakes Prison

GUATEMALA CITY Seven inmates died Sept. 25 as government forces occupied Guatemala s largest prison, retaking it from the drug-dealing gang that had effectively been running the institution for a decade.

President Oscar Berger told journalists at the end of a visit to the prison that the operation had been very successful and the results filled him with optimism.

Though initially the authorities had reported eight deaths and at least 20 people wounded, Berger said that only seven prisoners lost their lives and two people were wounded, one of them a policeman.

Supported by armored personnel carriers and military helicopters, some 3,000 police and soldiers stormed the Pavon prison farm at dawn Monday, taking the more than 1,600 inmates completely by surprise.

The penal facility is located in Fraijanes, some 30 kilometers southeast of the Guatemalan capital.

Among the seven inmates killed in the operation was Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Batres, who died with a grenade in his hand, according to national prison chief Alejandro Giammattei.

The Guatemalan press reported that Batres was directing the work at a drug processing laboratory inside the prison farm, which had been controlled by criminal elements for 10 years.

The Colombian had been captured in Guatemala on Nov. 4, 2000, and sentenced the following year to 12 years behind bars.

Another of the dead convicts was identified as Luis Alfonso Zepeda, who was serving a 27-year sentence for murder and who, according to Giammattei, died while firing an M-16 assault rifle at the police and troops storming the prison.

Zepeda, head of the Order and Discipline Committee that Guatemala s interior ministry put in charge of the prison in 1996, was accused of leading the gang that operated illicit drug labs inside the prison while extorting and victimizing other inmates.

Interior Minister Carlos Vielman said that this week s operation is expected to weaken drug-trafficking operations in the capital, as well as kidnappings that had been planned from Pavon.

Vielman announced that with all the activities being undertaken at the prison, prosecutors would have to conduct an investigation to determine if penal authorities are implicated in the illicit business being carried out inside the facility.

Guatemala s Ombudsman, Sergio Morales, expressed his satisfaction at the fact that the government had taken over the reins of the prison, but he added that a purge of the prison guards would have to be conducted because they are involved in the illegal activities being carried out there.

The Mutual Support Group, a human rights organization, also said that it was important and of great significance that the authorities had taken control of the prison from where kidnappings and extortion had been directed.


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