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Panama: Prison gunbattle toll 15, corrections chiefs fired

December 19, 2019 GMT

PANAMA CITY (AP) — Authorities on Wednesday raised to 15 the death toll from a gunfight the previous day inside a lockup near Panama City and fired top penitentiary officials amid an investigation into what touched off the country’s deadliest incident of prison violence.

President Laurentino Cortizo ordered the dismissal of prisons director Walter Hernández and Hernández’s No. 2, as well as other officials responsible for police guard at La Joyita prison and another one nearby.

“This is an unacceptable situation and we will make the necessary decisions,” Cortizo said.

The Interior Department added in a report that nine wounded prisoners remained hospitalized, including one in critical condition.

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Tuesday’s gunbattle took place between incarcerated members of the same gang at a cellblock housing over 500 inmates. Pope Francis visited the prison in early 2019 when he came to Panama for World Youth Day.

Cellphone videos that circulated on social media showed prisoners running and shooting. Police later seized various handguns and Kalashnikov rifles that had been apparently smuggled in.

Authorities acknowledge that such smuggling is a longtime problem, and weapons have been used in inmate disputes before — though experts said this was the most serious incident of prison violence so far.

Although gangs have less of a presence in Panama than in other Central American nations such as El Salvador and Honduras, observers say groups have proliferated in recent decades that are primarily dedicated to drug trafficking and are blamed for many of the country’s killings.

Cortizo, who took office July 1, asked the Interior and Public Security departments to deliver a complete report on the prison violence in two weeks along with a plan to keep contraband weapons out of cells.

“I want to have answers and actions that must be taken,” he told journalists.