Prison officials discovered the bodies of seven unidentified inmates stuffed into trash bins and bearing signs of torture at a notorious Guatemalan prison on Wednesday.
The bodies were found in an area of the prison that houses members of the powerful Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13. Officials at the maximum-security El Boqueron prison in the eastern city of Cuilapa told AFP that they're investigating whether the killings were related to gang violence.
Brutal violence is not uncommon in Guatemalan prisons. Three bodies were discovered in the same prison three weeks ago. In a 2008 fight between rival gangs, seven prisoners were killed, five of whom were beheaded. Riots across seven prisons left 31 prisoners dead in 2005.
Guatemala is one of the most violent places in the world, with much of the violence related to gangs. In 2009, there were nearly 6,500 murders in the country. Killings have declined since, with fewer than 5,000 people killed last year, according to the State Department. In 2013, Guatemala City ranked as the eighth most violent city in the world, with 68 homicides per 100,000 people.
Guatemala's overcrowded prison system exacerbates the violence. In 2014, there were more than 18,000 people imprisoned in Guatemala, an increase of more than 125 percent since 2008, according to the International Center for Prison Studies. Last year, Guatemala's prisons were 280 percent over capacity, making the country's penitentiary systems one of the most crowded in the world.
Extortion, rioting, and hostage situations are frequent occurrences between warring gang members and prison guards. There were a string of incidents in 2012 in which prisoners rioted and took either fellow inmates or guards hostage before releasing them days later. Extortion calls also commonly originate from prisons, according to the State Department, and are often accompanied by acts of violence if the victim does not comply. And prison guards and inmates have reportedly established an elaborate black market and a system of hierarchy enforced by violence.
In January, Guatemala president Perez Molina vowed 2015 would be the year of non-violence. But Molina's promise has since been overshadowed by growing outrage toward government corruption and scandal ahead of elections slated to take place next month.