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Peruvian prison riot:
How reigh of terror ended

By Michael L. Smith

The Globe and Mail, February, 1983

Peru is the world's largest producer of coca, whose leaves are used to make cocaine. Each year, the promise of a fast buck tempts hundreds of foreigners into oprating as mules, or drug traffickers.

Few of these adventurers realize the misery and despondency which awaits them if they are caught. Trapped by a creaking legal system which will lumber on for up to two years before they are sentenced, they will waste away in Peruvian jails.

There they will be exposed to corruption, drugs, prostitution, overcrowded quarters adn rancid food.

Thirty-two prisonsers died last month during a prison riot at Lima's El Sexto prison, the worst uprising in Peru's history.

Canadians and other foreigners in Peru's jails must pay for their food and legal costs can mount quickly. Canada's External Affairs Department has admitted giving the wrong person $1,700 that had been earmarked for legal costs of a Quebec couple held on cocaine possession charges in Lima.

The couple, Sydney Goldfarb, 33, and Lynne Durand, 27, have been in jail for more than a year and their case has not come to trial.

The El Sexto riot followed a reign of terror that lasted for months in which three gangs of thugs raided cells and robbed the occupants at knifepoint.

There are about 1,100 prisoners in El Sexto, which was built almost 50 years ago, to house 200. It has one functioning bathroom; many prisoners sleep on concrete floors.

On March 4, two of the gangs banded together during the afternoon and robbed a cell that served as a store. That move touched off the rioting.

What followed is the account of a Canadian awaiting trial on a drug charge, whose name has been withheld for fear of reprisals from prison guards.

"At about seven o'clock as we sat finishing our dinner in the rotonda (a group of ten cells containing mostly educated Peruvians and all the foreigners), we heard the sounds of battle through the concrete walls.

"The yells and shouts and the clash of steel against seteel (most prisoners carry knives or machetes for self-defense would have put Ben Hur to shame. There was a loud clamor in the walkway of the rotonda as peoople tried to get into the pavilion to help their friends, but the gates were locked.

"After about 20 minutes, the fighting died down and we could hear people at the pavilion gate yelling for prison employees to bring medical attention.

"The first battle had been won by the troublemakers who chased the others back to their cells. A regrouping took place and more people joined the fighting against the three gangs.

"After half an hour, the battle resumed. The leader of one gang and two of his stongmen were killed. The defenders of the pavilion advanced to the third floor, where they found four members of another gang making Molotov cocktails to be used against them.

"These were all seized, the men locked in their cell and two of the firebombs were thrown in, killing all four.

"From the walkway of the rotonda, we could see the smoke pouring from the cells. There were gunshots and the occassisonal burst of a submachine gun (apparently the only attempt by prison authorities to restore order).

"Suddenly there was a loud whoomp and a red flash and flames shot out of the window of another cell. Within seconds flames were shooting out of the windows so violently that tit look like the tip of a giant blowtorch. Five minutes later another cell went up the same way, with four-foot flames shooting out.

"The troublemakers were locked in cells and fire bombs thrown in at them or they were stabbed to death wherever they were found. One of the most hated troublemakers ran from a cell a flaming torch and fell from the third floor where he was stabbed and dismembered.

"The leader of the second gang was found in a cell with 12 of his men, and their own firebombs of boiling kerosene and wax were thrown in to incinerate them.

When it was all over, calm returned to the pavilion and the police and firefighters entered the cell block. In the next 14 hours the police used theirs clubs and boots on hundreds in a search. The stole more from all the prisoners then than had been stolen all year by the thieves, and left the cells lookings as though they had been hit by a cyclone.

"A few days later the death toll was 32 and more than 40 people were injured. But it was safe to Walk about El Sexto without fear of being robbed or stabbed in the back. No longer are 1,100 people terrorized by a handful of men who no one could control because they had no respect for human lives or property."

Peruvian authorities say that once the fighting began it was impossible for them to stop it. A reform movement for the penal system was started nine months ago when the new civilian Government took office. But efforts have been hindered by a lack of money, lack of qualified prison staff and lack of new prison facilities.

© 1983 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved