The new federal penitentiary in Santa Barbara, Honduras, occupies a strip of land between a highway and cloudy, forested hills. “El Pozo,” or The Pit, as it’s known, is surrounded by barbed wire and has two additional checkpoints beyond the first gate. It’s a maximum-security facility, one of three that have popped up since 2009. Before these were built, Honduras had no maximum-security prisons. El Pozo is one of the products of a United States international prison management program that infuses Latin American penitentiary cultures with some of the most inhumane aspects of US prison systems, and provides no benefit in terms of real security.
At least $22 million have been devoted to a US international prison program focused mainly on Central American prisons. This program operates out of a web of government offices and programs, most prominently the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) of the US State Department. Because of the extent to which information is classified, it is difficult to track exactly what prison management entails, but it’s clear that the US has in some way been involved in the prison systems of at least 34 countries. US activities include training, imparting management strategies and building new prisons.
The sprawling El Pozo is a departure from Honduras’s prisons before 2009, when the US prison program began in Honduras. It looks exactly like a US prison — it even has a disabled parking spot (unlike, unfortunately, almost any other building in Honduras). Just 15 kilometers away from El Pozo in the city of Santa Barbara, the local, pre-2009 prison is more typical. Located one block from the city’s main square, it is a nondescript yellow building built on a steep hill, marked only by a hand-painted sign. The sidewalk outside is occupied by pedestrians and vendors selling goods under awnings. Prison policy permits regular family visits, and family may bring food and some other items. Compared to many US prisons, the prison at Santa Barbara is relatively open to the outside community. This is the type of prison that, with the advent of the US program, has now been deemed inadequate for many of Honduras’s incarcerated people.
Indeed, Honduran prisons have long been home to corruption and violence. It is a common occurrence for dozens of incarcerated gang members to escape all at once while guards look the other way, or for an unchecked fire to massacre hundreds. Many of the elites of organized crime remain involved in criminal enterprise while on the inside. The right-wing Honduran government chooses not to view these problems as symptoms of broader societal corruption and impunity, but instead as an issue of weak prison facilities.
Cesar Cáceres, a Honduran government official and president of the country’s National Committee to Prevent Torture and Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment (or CONAPREV), suggests that the old prison buildings and lack of technology were to blame for the problems of Honduras’s prisons in the past. “If it wasn’t the worst, it was one of the worst prison systems in Latin America because there wasn’t new infrastructure,” said Cáceres. His viewpoint is typical of the state narrative. “Disgracefully, due to the lack of control, supervision and development, the system gave way to the creation of practical self-governance,” Cáceres said. The notion that prisoners govern themselves implies that the prisoners have control behind the walls, and that the state is more victim than complicit perpetrator.
This type of justification is used to pave the way for the US government to step in. The US began work on prisons with Honduras’s government before the illegal coup of 2009. The first collaborative construction project was a maximum-security section of already existing La Tamara prison near Tegucigalpa. The new section is known as “La Maquila.” The US controlled the design and construction of this facility, and loaned the funds needed to build it.
Despite many serious human rights abuses after the 2009 coup, the US continued to work with the coup-imposed government, putting to use decades of experience with the mass incarceration of its own low-income, Black and Brown communities. The coup opened Honduras to more intense US intervention, as the entire country grew more and more militarized. In 2014, the Honduran prison system passed into military control.
Around the same time, the new maximum-security prison known as El Pozo was completed, and a prison known as El Pozo II soon followed. These were announced with lurid headlines in Honduran newspapers, like “El Pozo is a Hell for Gangsters,” or “Even Prisoners Faint when They Arrive at El Pozo II.” Construction is currently stalled at a similar facility in Naco. Karen Spring of the Honduras Solidarity Network explains, “The shift in the prison culture is directly linked to the security policies that came as a result of the coup.”
Iolany Perez, communications director at the Honduran news organization Radio Progreso, was curious about the new wave of prisons in her country. This spring, she went to El Pozo to see if she could get inside. After initially being told she could not, she was permitted to enter by the director, who wanted “to show me who was in charge.” Perez saw that he was clearly high-ranking military because of his badges, although since January, 2017, Honduran prisons are supposed to have returned to civilian control. He showed her a wall of high-tech security monitors, and bragged that he could get on the phone with President Juan Orlando Hernández at any time.
Extreme isolation, being locked in tiny cells and sun deprivation are not unusual conditions in prisons in the US, but are new to Honduran prisons.
Gary Mejía, who is currently incarcerated at El Pozo, briefly spoke to the media when he testified in court. In the few minutes he had before being taken away, he told reporters that the conditions inside were terrible. “There is no water. For example, to bathe, I have to take water out of the trash can with the same glass I drink water out of,” Mejia said. “The food is terrible; all of us are getting skinnier all the time. Imagine that you were only taken out to see the sun for five minutes each day. And then we’re isolated without being able to see our loved ones.”
Extreme isolation, being locked in tiny cells and sun deprivation are not unusual conditions in prisons in the US, but are new to Honduran prisons. Alba Mejía, director of the nonprofit organization Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation for Victims of Torture (CPTRT), said the conditions at maximum-security US-style prisons of Honduras are not only very different from those that existed before, “from my perspective, they’re getting worse,” she said. The military elements running the prisons, Mejía says, “have no knowledge of rehabilitation.” To them, “the prisons should be full of delinquents, and there they’ll have no rights because they’re not human beings.”
Even with the increased security features, Honduras’s new maximum-security prisons can’t contain their prisoners. Virgil Sanchez Montoya, a suspected leader of the Barrio 18 gang who had been found guilty of killing 17 people at a shoe shop, was incarcerated at El Pozo. In May 2017, he was arrested for walking through San Pedro Sula with an AK-47. He’s the fourth prisoner “rearrested” this year after they were supposed to be incarcerated at El Pozo. In June 2017, two people were killed inside El Pozo II. The new prisons continue to be dysfunctional and corrupt.
If the security situation has gotten better, why does the repression keep getting stronger?”
Moreover, while officially Honduras’s murder rate is going down, many believe this to be a fabrication. The Observatory of Violence at the University of Honduras states that between 2011 and 2015, the murder rate went from 86 per 100,000 residents, to 60 per 100,000. José Guadalupe Ruelas, the national director of Casa Alianza in Honduras, said, “We don’t believe this corresponds to reality. The government has [a] monopoly on statistics.” He explained that the Observatory of Violence, which has kept track of violence in the country, used to be able to go directly to the morgues, the hospitals, the police, and to otherwise conduct independent research, but as of two years ago, they must wait until the secretary of state delivers the figures to them. Ruelas says, “It’s a contradictory discourse — if the security situation has gotten better, why does the repression keep getting stronger?”
Many in Honduras suspect their government is now using the continuing crisis and dysfunction in the new prisons as an opportunity to privatize the prison system. Omar Rivera of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ), a Honduran organization that gets a significant portion of their funding from several agencies of the US government, just came out in favor of privatizing Honduras’s prisons, or putting them in the hands of “friendly governments.” Cesar Cáceres, too, strongly supports prison privatization. Before joining the CONAPREV, Cáceres worked at the office for public-private partnerships of the Honduran government. “Many American, Colombian, Mexican, Israeli companies came who wanted to offer their services in managing prisons,” he said, but under President Zelaya, who was deposed by the 2009 coup, “there wasn’t the political will.” A newly privatized market in Honduran prisons will further open the country to US business interests.
US involvement in prisons is not unique to Honduras. In the late 1990s, Colombia was home to the first project of the international US prison management program. “La Tramacúa,” as the prison in Valledupar is known, was notorious for torturing political prisoners during their incarceration. At least until 2012, those incarcerated in La Tramacúa had an elaborate system for collecting and sharing water for the 10 minutes a day that it ran. The food had feces in it. Prisoners reported that 70 percent of the population was sick with diarrhea, vomiting or constant coughs. These issues, related in part to poor design, compound the problems more commonly associated with US prisons — confinement in cells and isolation from family.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded La Tramacúa, and the US Bureau of Prisons implemented its construction and controlled every aspect of the design. It was modeled after Coleman Prison in Florida. The US Bureau of Prisons had an office in La Tramacúa when it was built. In January 2016 a Colombian government commission examined the conditions inside the prison and ordered for it to be closed, although this recommendation has not yet been followed. This troubled prison was the beginning of what has now been almost two decades of US international prison management programs.
In every Latin American country where the US has run prison programs, rates of incarceration are increasing.
Moreover, in every Latin American country where the US has run prison programs, rates of incarceration are increasing. Mexico’s incarceration rate has increased by 37 percent since 2000. El Salvador’s incarceration rate now rivals that of the United States.
For decades, the US has refused to deal with social ills at home. Instead, as Michelle Alexander says, a “literal war that has been declared on poor people and people of color has led to the birth of a prison system unlike anything in world history.” Now we’re pushing Latin American governments to begin following in our steps. July Henriquez, a lawyer with Lazos de Dignidad in Colombia, writes that US prison management programs call for a response shaped by a “Latin Americanist, liberatory, and transformational criminology.” She calls for separating the prison from the interests of global capital, and instead, facing the social realities of each country.
Iolany Perez would be happy for all US prison management programs to end immediately, along with all US aid. “That’s the dream,” Perez said. “The response should come from here. The reality of our problems is very much ours.”