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Guatemala forces take infamous prison after 10 years

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FRAIJANES, Guatemala (Reuters) - 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 firing automatic weapons stormed the Pavon prison just after dawn on Monday. Inmates, some carrying grenades, fired back.

"There was initial resistance by the inmates which was controlled in less than an hour," Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann told reporters.

Guards, often corrupt, only patrolled the prison's perimeter and ran the administration section while inmates organized crime empires on the outside from cell blocks and houses they built on the sprawling prison's large grounds.

A police pick-up truck drove out of Pavon after the raid carrying at least two bodies. A dead man's legs dangled out of the back of the vehicle.

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, 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.

Prisoners had set up laboratories to produce cocaine, crack and liquor inside Pavon, on the edge of the town of Fraijanes.

HOMES ON THE GROUNDS

Pavon was one of the worst prisons in Guatemala's penitentiary system, where common criminals, rival "mara" street gangsters and drug traffickers often battle for control.

"It's a center where organized crime, drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and all kinds of illicit activities were being controlled from," Vielmann said.

Inmates also built their own homes in the prison grounds. One belonging to a Colombian drug trafficker had a jacuzzi, national prison director Alejandro Giammattei said.

The two-story wooden house boasted a king-sized bed and was protected by pedigree guard dogs, a witness said.

Giammattei asked prosecutors to investigate all of the 80 or so prison guards at Pavon for allowing drugs, weapons and hundreds of cell phones inside.

Pavon, southeast of the capital, was originally built for 800 inmates as a farm prison, where prisoners could grow their own food. But its population grew over time and inmates began to construct their own homes on the grounds.

The "order committee" sold new prisoners title deeds to homes in the grounds and rented space where inmates set up restaurants selling home cooking like stews and tortillas.

Stores controlled by the prisoners sold soft drinks and chips brought in from the outside.

After taking control, security forces began emptying Pavon of its 1,600 inhabitants and transferring them to another prison.

The operation came a day after Guatemala's main newspaper Prensa Libre published a long article about the prisoners' often relaxed lifestyle. Journalists who got into the prison said they bought marijuana, cocaine and crack there.


* ~ * Charles * ~ *
 

I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy.

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