San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Prison Officials’ Errors Facilitated Escape

While eight convicts who escaped from Costa Rica’s largest prison last week remain at large, authorities have denounced the actions of prison security guards as error-ridden and the situation as clearly preventable.

Three unlocked gates, sleeping security chiefs, prison guards who were unarmed and unprotected by bulletproof vests and overall slow responsiveness are among the errors that may have resulted in the loss of a guard’s life and facilitated the flight of eight prisoners before dawn Oct. 9 from La Reforma Penitentiary, in the province of Alajuela, according to Justice Minister Laura Chinchilla.

“What one finds in analyzing the case is a common denominator of overconfidence (by prison security), as if the people being guarded there were schoolchildren,” Chinchilla told The Tico Times.

The Justice Minister has created a commission of experts to analyze the recent escape and evaluate a new crisis protocol that Chinchilla had planned to present last Friday but postponed in light of last week’s events. The document prescribes actions prison officials should take during emergency situations such as prisoner escape attempts, such as immediately alerting the National Police (TT, Oct. 13).

The commission, which is expected to convene anywhere from six to eight weeks, is headed by Gerardo Castaing, a former agent of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). Representatives from the Public Security Ministry and the National Intelligence and Security Administration (DIS) will assist him, according to Chinchilla.

In a two-part investigation, OIJ is also studying the reasons why the escapees have not been captured.

“There are two lines to this investigation: why it was not possible to stop the escape and the capture of the escaped prisoners,” OIJ Director Jorge Rojas told The Tico Times.

Although the OIJ has received notice of possible sightings of the fugitives in different parts of the country, including San José, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Northern Zone, none of them have led to the escapees, according to Rojas.

The OIJ head said that because some of the escaped prisoners may have fled the country, Costa Rican authorities have alerted their Panamanian and Nicaraguan counterparts. He explained this is a common procedure after prison escapes in the region.

In San José, six police officers have been permanently assigned to this case. Police departments throughout the country have performed searches and will continue to do so if they receive tips that the fugitives are in their vicinity, Rojas said.

He explained that the OIJ is studying how the prisoners obtained firearms and tools to make their escape, and exactly how they broke out of La Reforma.

The fugitives, who were serving sentences that stretched between four and 45 years for murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery, among other crimes, were armed with a .38-caliber handgun during their escape (TT, Oct. 13).

They used pieces of saw blade to cut through the bars on their cell window and climb out, according to Emilia Segura, a Justice Ministry spokeswoman.

Although at least one security chief should be on guard at all times, they were all sleeping at the time of the escape, Chinchilla said.

When the prisoners shot at guards during their escape, the guards left three gates unlocked as they ran for their lives. The convicts escaped through these gates. The inmates took four guards hostage and used them as human shields so other guards would not shoot at them on their way out. Despite a floodlight and the sound of shots being fired, the guards at La Reforma’s main entrance did not put on their bulletproof vests and when threatened by the prisoners, gave up their weapons, a 9-mm pistol and an automatic HK machine gun, Segura said.

At the entrance, the convicts fatally shot prison guard Marco Tulio Prada.

Once outside, the inmates rushed into a 4×4 vehicle, where they ordered their hostages to lie down. Six of the inmates sat on top of them, and two fled by foot. The hostages were released a few kilometers away with minor injuries.

According to Chinchilla, prison security should have immediately alerted National Police and ordered roads and highways closed off. Instead, for reasons not entirely clear, police were not alerted until 50 minutes after the escape (TT, Oct. 13).

Anyone with information on the fugitives can call 911 or contact the nearest

police station.


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