San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Report shows prison guard killed by friendly fire

More than a month after a failed jailbreak at La Reforma penitentiary shook Costa Rica, the fallout continues to rumble.

Another prisoner killing, 10 guards suspected of beating him to death and the revelation that a fatally wounded guard died by a policeman’s gunshot are all adding fuel to a burning debate in a country coming to terms with its crime and punishment quandary.

Even as police probe further into the details surrounding the deadly May 11 standoff at the jail north of San José in Alajuela, experts warn that another escape attempt could happen (TT, May 11). Purported prison guard violence against prisoners could be deepening La Reforma’s problems, and egging on the inmates.

“[The abuse] could have a double impact that would be very dangerous because prisoners could reorganize on the one hand and then eventually plot and execute another rebellion,” said Patricia Molina, criminology expert at State University at a Distance in San José.

The police, she added, are not properly prepared to handle that kind of situation.

This week a ballistics report revealed that Francis Morales, one of 15 prison guards taken hostage by nine prisoners attempting escape, was shot dead during the standoff most likely by a special agent of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).

Erlyn Hurtado, one of two prisoners who were also killed during the clash, was holding Morales to block the hail of police bullets.

“Erlyn Hurtado held Francis, the guard, as a human shield and that is unfortunately when a bullet impacted [Morales’] thorax,” OIJ Director Jorge Rojas told reporters in a news conference. 

“The weapon that killed that person is very much likely to have been fired by the OIJ tactical group,” he said.

Rojas gave an illustrated presentation, which he said was the result of an ongoing investigation to map out the path of each lethal bullet from gun to victim. His slides showed a squad of police agents aiming guns at a tightly huddled group with nine inmates at the core and 15 guards forced to surround them like a protective shell. He said the prisoners carried an arsenal of two pistols, several knives and hand grenades.

“The difficulty and risk was that this occurred with such a compact group of prisoners and hostages,” Rojas said.

“In the OIJ we are very sorry for the outcome of this [guard] who died in the line of duty but given circumstances as complicated and particular as this clash, with people with grenades that at any moment could go off … it was ammunition capable of killing the whole cluster of 24 people,” he said.

Bludgeoned Ringleader

Johel Araya, presumed to be the ringleader of this uprising and a prior attempted jailbreak in 2006, appeared dead in his cell on May 21 (TT, May 22).

The autopsy report showed he had suffered a brutal beating, with one fatal blow to the head. One hypothesis remains the ruling theory: prison guards beat him to death.

“He was in a cell that was only accessible to guards – no one else could have been there,” Rojas told The Tico Times.

Two days before Araya’s death, the prisoner lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court alleging that prison guards were physically abusing him. “They are killing me slowly,” the complaint said (TT, June 16).

The Justice Minister singled out and suspended 10 guards as suspects of killing the 46-year-old prisoner.

Following the Araya murder, wives of other inmates went to the Ombudsman’s Office to report that their husbands had told them of physical and psychological abuse by prison guards.

“We could verify that the inmates were telling the truth. Many of them have bruises on their bodies and other physical evidence,” said Deputy Ombudsman Luis Fallas.

Prisoners’ families and politicians protested what seemed to be a blatant violation of human rights in Costa Rica’s jails.

“Many of our prisons have become something akin to a death sentence,” Justo Orozco, a congressman of the Costa Rican Restoration Party, recently told fellow legislators.

Police are investigating the events around May 11 and many questions remain unanswered, but leave much room for dark speculation.

How did the prisoners get their hands on keys to open jail cells, the guns and grenades? What was the motive behind Araya’s apparent murder? Was it retaliation for his hostage-taking and attempted escapes?

“No, to me it doesn’t seem like revenge. More like a product of what he knew,” said Molina, the university criminology expert. In her view, the prison guards had much covering up to do.

“I think it was part of the domino effect of corruption, because when the escape plan didn’t work, it left the inside contacts exposed,” she said. “That person [Araya] must have had clear information about who was involved.”

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