FRAIJANES (GUATEMALA): Security forces took over a Guatemalan prison controlled for more than 10 years by inmates who produced drugs, lived in spacious homes with luxury goods and even rented space for stores and restaurants.
Seven prisoners died when 3,000 police and soldiers stormed the Pavon prison just after dawn on Monday. Inmates, some carrying grenades, fired back, said interior minister Carlos Vielmann told reporters.
Guards only patrolled the perimeter and ran the administration section while inmates organised crime empires on the outside from cell blocks and houses they built on the sprawling prison's large grounds.
Luis Alfonso Zepeda, a convicted murderer who headed an "order committee" elected by prisoners that controlled the prison for more than a decade, was killed in a shootout with security forces.
Zepeda earned around $25,000 a month from extortion and drug trafficking run from inside the prison. Prisoners had set up labs to produce cocaine and liquor.
"It's a centre where organised crime, drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion were being controlled from," Vielmann said. Inmates also built their homes.
One belonging to a Colombian drug trafficker had a Jacuzzi, national prison director Alejandro Giammattei said.
The operation came a day after Guatemala's main newspaper Prensa Libre published an article about the prisoners' often relaxed lifestyle.
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.