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Last Updated: Monday, 24 October 2005, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Jailbreak from Guatemalan prison
'Mara' member in Guatemala
Feuding between "maras" is common at Guatemalan jails
The Guatemalan government has launched an investigation into a jailbreak from one of the country's most notorious high-security prisons.

Nineteen inmates tunnelled their way out of the jail in the town of Escuintla, 80km (50 miles) south of Guatemala City, on Saturday.

The escapees include murderers, rapists and kidnappers serving long sentences.

The jail - a crumbling former fort - is known by inmates as "Little Hell" because of its appalling conditions.

The tunnel, which was about 200 metres long, started in a cell with six beds and finished three metres from the prison's electrified fence, right in between two watch towers.

The prison system director, Francisco De la Pena, was immediately fired. He served in the post for less than six months and had complained he inherited a jail system on the verge of collapse.

Over 20 members of the Escuintla prison staff were taken into custody for questioning. The government suspects some of them were involved in the jail break.


Meanwhile, army troops and police set up checkpoints around the country and tightened security on the borders with Mexico and El Salvador.

Two of the fugitives were recaptured.

Most of the escapees are said to be members of violent street gangs known as "maras", which have spread across Central America.

Feuding between "maras" at detention centres in Guatemala has killed dozens of people in recent months.

Four years ago, more than 70 inmates escaped from the Escuintla prison during a gun battle in which three people died. Twenty-five of the fugitives were later killed.

Human rights groups claimed that they were executed by security forces, but they denied the accusation.

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