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Guatemalan gang member, authorities wary of reprisals after deadly prison uprisings

GUATEMALA CITY- Prison and human-rights authorities were on alert Sunday as a veteran gang member warned that deadly prison riots last week had shattered an uneasy truce among rival gangs in prison.

"In the prisons, now there is no agreement," said Jorge "Shaggy" Morales, 22, an inmate whose left lung was punctured by a grenade on Aug. 15 in a coordinated attack by the Mara Salvatrucha that left 35 dead. Gangs are known as "maras" in Central America.

"It was a time bomb, you didn't know when it would explode," said Morales, a member of the Mara 18 in prison on homicide charges since last year. "But we never imagined that it would blow like that, with weapons. We thought it would be head to head and not like that."

The riots began shortly after the explosion of grenades at El Hoyon prison in the town of Escuintla, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Guatemala City. Violence broke out in six other facilities throughout the day, as Mara Salvatrucha members attacked inmates loyal to Mara 18 with guns, grenades and knives.

In addition to those killed, more than 60 prisoners were injured.

The uprisings prompted officials to order hundreds of prisoners transferred in order to separate members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang from rivals in the Mara 18.

Human rights prosecutor Sergio Morales expressed concern that "a blood bath" could be seen in the streets of El Salvador if allied gang members seek revenge for the prison riots.

Deputy Interior Minister Julio Godoy described security shortcomings at the prisons that allowed prisoners to manipulate guards and gain access deadly weapons.

"The problem is integral: We're left with bad infrastructure, human resources," said Godoy, in comments published Sunday in the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre. "We lack a specialized academy for training people, and the salaries of guards are very poor."

Recovering from a shrapnel wound, Morales said he knows how rival gang members obtained grenades inside prison walls.

"The guards can be bought," he said.

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