Relatives of inmates wait in distress outside the entrance to the women's prison in Tamara, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Tegucigalpa: Honduran President Xiomara Castro fired the country’s security minister after an apparent riot at a women’s prison left at least 41 people dead, in violence that she linked to gangs and said happened with the “acquiescence of security authorities.”

The removal of Ramn Sabilln as the minister of security is part of Castro’s resolve to “retake control of the prison system in Honduras,” according to state-owned Channel 8 news.

The announcement came hours after at a deadly riot and fire at the National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation in Tamara, about 20 miles northwest of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

The position will be filled by Gustavo Sanchez, director of the Honduras National Police.

“I am going to take drastic measures!” Castro said on social media, adding that she believes the riot was instigated by street gangs “with the knowledge and acquiescence of security authorities.”

Police have counted at least 41 bodies so far, most burned to death, Yuri Mora, the spokesman for Honduras’s national police investigation agency, told the Associated Press.

At least seven inmates were hospitalised with gun or knife wounds, Mora said.

Mora said the death toll may rise further as five forensic teams rushed to identify the victims. Mora told local media it could be difficult to identify the burned bodies.

Delma Ordonez, who heads an association representing inmates’ families, told local media that one gang had set fire to a rival gang’s cell and part of the prison had been “completely destroyed.” She said the facility holds about 900 prisoners.

“We are here dying of anguish, of pain,” Salomn Garca, whose daughter is an inmate at the facility, told local media. “We don’t have any information.”

Stacked corpses could be seen in images posted on social video, and videos show a huge cloud of gray smoke. On a government TV channel, video clips from inside the jail showed several pistols and a heap of machetes among the weapons found after the riot.

Julissa Villanueva, vice minister of security and head of the country’s penitentiary system, said gangs who wield extensive control inside the country’s prisons could have started the riot in retaliation for a government campaign to crack down on illegal activities inside prisons.

“We are not going to back down,” Villanueva said in a televised address after the riot.

Honduras has a history of deadly prison incidents. More than 350 died in a prison fire in central Honduras in 2012, and a fire sparked by a short circuit killed at least 103 inmates in 2004.