San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Prison riot leaves 2 dead, 7 injured

The rampant chaos that plagued Costa Rican penitentiaries in 2011 picked up where it left off on Monday, when a riot at the much maligned La Reforma prison in Alajuela, northwest of San José, resulted in the death of two inmates and left an additional seven people injured. 

According to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), on Monday morning, 800 inmates from the prison’s 1B cellblock were given access to the prison’s outdoor recreation area, under the supervision of only seven prison guards. 

Around 9:30 a.m., a fight erupted among prisoners. Guards locked down the prison’s perimeter, but were unable to control the melee. Inmates returned inside the prison to retrieve knives and other weapons hidden inside their cells.   

The OIJ reported that prisoners wielding knives and homemade weapons began “wounding anyone that stood in their way” throughout the cellblock. During the riot, prisoners Alberto Lowe, 48, and William Gerardo Frini, 39, were stabbed to death. The two men were enemies of a group of inmates who started the riot. Seven others were wounded and transferred to the San Rafael Hospital in Alajuela.

According to Eugenio Polanco, director of Costa Rica’s prison system, the riot was sparked by members of rival gangs thought to be distributing drugs, weapons and cellphones inside the prison. 

“There are groups of gangs in the prisons that often feud over drug sales,” Polanco said in a press conference Monday. “Normally, when the conflict escalates, prisoners resolve the problems with violence.” 

In the wake of the riot, guards searched the cellblock and recovered 90 knives, four cellphones, homemade alcohol known as chicha, marijuana and 2.7 million ($5,400). Last July, guards at La Reforma recovered 136 weapons, a gun, 102 crack rocks, homemade liquor and 250 grams of marijuana during a surprise search. 

“It is evident that the monthly searches we conduct are not reducing the number of weapons in La Reforma,” Polanco said. “We conduct a monthly search, though it appears we must increase the frequency and spontaneity of the searches to assure that incidents like this don’t continue to occur.” 

La Reforma’s lax security measures were again exploited Tuesday afternoon when inmate Rigoberto Matarrita stabbed four guards as he was transferred from his cell to meet with a psychologist. Matarrita, who is serving a 48-year sentence for homicide, used a homemade knife to stab the guards who escorted him to a therapy session. None of the guards suffered serious injuries, though their decision to escort Matarrita without handcuffs was questioned Tuesday evening.    

“Our prison system is in danger of complete collapse,” said Justice Minister Hernando París. “We don’t have the resources to hire and train new employees. We asked for funds for 300 new employees last year and the request was denied. We’ve asked for 150 new employees this year that are still pending approval. We simply do not have the resources or personnel to deal with the continued increase in prisoners.” 

According to the Ombudswoman’s Office, in 2010, for every 100 cells in Costa Rican prisons, there were 114 prisoners. Overcrowding, as well as the distribution of drugs and weapons within the prison system, have plagued national penitentiaries in recent years. On May 11, in the most infamous prison event in recent history, a prison break attempt at La Reforma ended in a shootout that killed a guard and two inmates. Ten days later, the supposed ringleader of the jailbreak, Johel Araya, was found dead in his cell, allegedly beaten to death by prison guards (TT, May 22, May 11, 2011).   

“The system is saturated. We are continuing to add prisoners to an already failing system,” Polanco said. “We are trying to implement new systems of control in national prisons but it is difficult with the small amounts of resources currently available. Right now, we don’t have enough guards to know what is happening right under their noses.”

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