Guatemala forces end 10-year prisoner rule at jail
By Mica Rosenberg
Monday, September 25, 2006; 8:16 PM
FRAIJANES, Guatemala (Reuters) - Guatemalan security forces took over a jail run for over 10 years by inmates who built their own town on prison grounds complete with restaurants, churches and hard-drug laboratories.
Seven prisoners died when 3,000 police and soldiers firing automatic weapons stormed the Pavon prison just after dawn on Monday.
Corrupt guards would only patrol the prison's perimeter and run the administration section while an "order committee" of hardened inmates controlled the rest. They smuggled in food, drink and luxury goods.
"The people who live here live better than all of us on the outside. They've even got pubs," said soldier Tomas Hernandez, 25.
Pet dogs, including a whining puppy, roamed the deserted prison grounds after the raid. One inmate kept a spider monkey captive, national prison officials said.
But with army helicopters clattering overhead, police backed up by armored cars transferred Pavon's 1,600 inhabitants to another prison, ending their lives of ease.
The inmates who died were killed in a shootout at the two-story wooden chalet of a convicted Colombian drug trafficker knows as "El Loco," or "The Madman."
Blood was splattered on the house's walls and floor. The Colombian had a widescreen television and high-speed Internet.
Pavon was one of the worst prisons in Guatemala's penitentiary system, where common criminals, rival "mara" street gangs and drug traffickers often battle for control.
Police had not been into Pavon, on the edge of the town of Fraijanes, since 1996.
OUT OF CONTROL
It was originally built for 800 inmates as a farm prison where prisoners could grow their own food. But the prison population grew over time and inmates began to construct their own homes on the grounds.
Guards let prisoners bring in whatever they wanted and inmates set up laboratories to produce cocaine, crack and liquor inside Pavon.
"It is degrading, inhuman and a mess here. Totally without authority," President Oscar Berger said at the prison.
Inmates extorted and kidnapped victims on the outside by giving orders via cell phone.
"It's a center from where organized crime, drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and all kinds of illicit activities were being controlled," Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann said.
Police seized hundreds of phones and large quantities of the chemical acetone, used in the production of cocaine.
They also killed Luis Alfonso Zepeda, a convicted murderer who headed the "order committee."
Zepeda earned around $25,000 a month from extortion, renting out prison grounds to other inmates and drug trafficking, police said.
His son Samuel lived illegally inside the prison to help run the crime empire, even though he was never sent there by a court.
National prison director Alejandro Giammattei said he had asked prosecutors to investigate all of the 80 or so prison guards at Pavon for collaborating with the prisoners.
Inmates ran at least two churches, one Catholic and the other Evangelical, and restaurants serving typical fare like stews and tortillas.
Stores controlled by the prisoners sold soft drinks and potato chips brought in from the outside.