Just as Costa Rican officials were preparing to announce security overhauls for the national prison system, eight inmates demonstrated the system’s weakness by breaking out of the country’s largest prison in the pre-dawn hours Monday.
The eight inmates, who were still at large as of press time, included prisoners convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery, among other crimes, and were serving sentences of between four and 45 years.
Authorities have said the men are believed to be armed and dangerous. Armed with a single .38-caliber handgun, the prisoners escaped Monday by sawing through the bars on their window, taking four unarmed guards hostage, helping themselves to a submachine gun and pistol from other guards and fatally shooting another at La Reforma prison, located northwest of San José in the province of Alajuela.
For reasons not entirely clear, prison authorities did not alert police until nearly an hour later, giving the fugitives a significant head start on national search efforts, Vice-Minister of Justice Fernando Ferrera told The Tico Times.
The delay in contacting the National Police is being partially blamed on the prison’s “crisis protocol,” which defines how prison officials should react in emergency situations like Monday morning.
According to Ferrera, Justice Minister Laura Chinchilla was preparing to present a new crisis protocol today. In the new protocol, one of the first steps in a crisis would be to alert the National Police. In the current protocol, it is “imprecise” at exactly what point the prison guards should do so.
“There were serious problems with the communications within the (prison) and with the outside,” Ferrera said, adding that the government has launched an investigation into what happened Monday.
According to officials, the eight cellmates escaped from their dormitory at approximately 1:40 a.m. Once outside, they encountered various unarmed prison guards, taking four hostage with the handgun as they moved through the prison yard toward the main entrance. Officials said they are unsure how the inmates got the gun or saw(s) into the prison. Guards within the buildings that house the dormitories do not carry arms because they could be taken away by inmates and used against them.
That, however, is exactly what happened to guards outside the dormitory area. Leaving their unit, the eight inmates moved to the main entrance where they apparently took an HK submachine gun and a 9-millimeter handgun from guards there and then fatally shot Marco Tulio Prada, a 40-year-old prison guard.
Prada, who had worked at the prison for 13 years, died at the San Rafael de Alajuela Hospital.
The escapees walked out of the prison with the hostages and continued approximately 500 meters to where they were met by a dark-colored 4×4 vehicle, believed to be a Nissan Pathfinder. Ferrera explained that, according to accounts from the hostages –who were taken in the vehicle and released with minor injuries a few kilometers away – six of the inmates escaped in the vehicle and two others escaped on foot.
Ferrera said that, while the prison’s police began a search for the escapees “almost immediately,” they did not alert the National Police until after 2:30 a.m., 50 minutes later.
“The correct thing is to alert the police at the beginning (of an escape),” Ferrera said.
“This wasn’t done.” Prison authorities are conducting an investigation into what happened Monday, Ferrera said, including the reason why it took so long to alert the police.
The Vice-Minister explained authorities currently believe the six who got away in the vehicle planned the escape, while the two that escaped on foot were tag-alongs. He added the investigation is looking into how long the inmates had been sawing at the bars on their windows, whether they had cell phones to communicate with help on the outside and whether they were aided by someone who worked in the prison.
“Unfortunately, that is a possibility,” Ferrera said.
Authorities have been tight-lipped about the search efforts and where they are concentrated.
The media, however, reported focused search activity in Grecia, north of San José, after a local woman there said she was visited by two bloody and dirty men, one of whom demanded a cup of coffee and appeared to match the description of one of the fugitives.
The escaped inmates include Guillermo Araya, 48, sentenced to four years for robbery, kidnapping for extortion and illegal impersonation of a public officer; Douglas Quirós, 48, sentenced to 141 years but reduced to 45 for aggravated robbery, aggravated unlawful imprisonment, aggravated rape and other crimes; Roberto Clark, 21, sentenced to five years for aggravated robbery; Freddy García, 33, sentenced to 20 years for first-degree murder; Johnny Rodríguez, 46, sentenced to 31 years for four counts of rape, sexual abuse and kidnapping; Rafael Ángel Herrera, 53, sentenced to 45 years for rape, robbery, assault and illegally carrying a weapon; Alberto Martínez, 38, sentenced to 45 years for kidnapping for extortion and other crimes; Víctor Urbina, 36, sentenced to 12 years for aggravated robbery.
While this is the first prison escape this year, it is the 44th in the past five years – there were 11 prison breaks last year, six in 2004, nine in 2003 and 17 in 2002, according to Justice Ministry spokeswoman Emilia Segura.
In December 2005, two inmates escaped from La Reforma. One was subsequently captured and the other turned himself in (TT, Dec. 23, 2005). According to the daily La Nación, the two escaped after cutting through the bars in a window bathroom with a saw a visitor brought them.
Costa Rica has 18 prisons – called Centers for Institutional Attention – spread throughout the country, housing 7,482 people, both convicted of crimes and awaiting trial. Costa Rica has only one women’s prison, El Buen Pastor located southeast of San José.
La Reforma, Costa Rica’s largest prison, holds 2,139 inmates who work on different projects, such as building desks for the Public Education Ministry and growing food for the national prison system, according the Justice Ministry.