The guards stand on one side of a "line of death," the prisoners on the other as they go about their business.
SAN PEDRO SULA, HONDURAS
Inside one of Honduras' most dangerous and overcrowded prisons, inmates operate a bazaar, selling everything from iPhones to prostitutes.
It's more like a fenced-in town than a conventional prison. Guards do not dare cross the painted, yellow "linea de la muerte" (line of death) into the inner sanctum run by prisoners, and prisoners do not breach the perimeter controlled by guards.
"The prisoners rule," assistant prison director Carlos Polanco said. "We only handle external security."
The unofficial division of power at the San Pedro Sula Central Corrections Facility is mimicked throughout the country, where a "Lord of the Flies" system allows inmates to run businesses behind bars, while officials turn a blind eye in exchange for a cut of the profits they say is spent on prison needs.
This culture virtually guarantees that even in the glare of international scrutiny over a fire that killed 361 prisoners at another Honduran prison three months ago, little stands to change.
Just one month after the fire at Comayagua prison, convicts at San Pedro Sula turned on their leader, killing 14 people and taking over the prison for three weeks before officials could get inside.
Crammed into cells
Journalists this month toured the prison in San Pedro Sula, where 2,137 inmates live in a space built for 800. They gained access not through the prison director but with permission from the head inmate, Noe Betancourt, who provided a team of eight prisoners as security. No guards went inside the bustling, autonomous town, where women and children milled about the stalls selling Coca-Cola, fruit, T-shirts, hammocks, shoes and rugs. Some 30 people enter from outside every day to work the market.
The guards typically keep to an area between two sets of locked doors. The first set is locked against entry to the outside world. Between those doors and the doors to prison cells lies the yellow line. Prisoners keep to their side of it so religiously that the doors to the indoor market and the cells are unlocked during the day.
A thickset middle-aged man who gave his prison tour accompanied by his girlfriend, Betancourt is responsible for taking charge of new inmates and explaining the fees, which include cell space.
Prices range from 1,000 lempiras ($50) for the worst cells to 15,000 lempiras ($750) for cleaner, more secure living space. Inmates who can't afford to pay anything sleep on the floors and get the worst jobs, such as cleaning.
Betancourt was "elected" to his post by his fellow inmates last month after his predecessor made the mistake of sharply raising fees.
The former boss, Mario Enriquez, was widely hated for abusing prisoners. After he hiked the costs of cells, food and other privileges, enraged inmates attacked him. They cut off his head, cut out his organs and fed his heart to his dog. Then they killed the dog.
Thirteen of the leader's band were murdered, too, their bodies buried under mattresses and set afire.
'Guarantee of impunity'
As in the case of the Comayagua prison fire, no charges have been filed in those deaths. At Comayagua, the prison director was dismissed, but the guards who fled and left men to burn in their cells that night were reassigned to other prisons, said Danny Rodriguez, the prison's new director.
Rodrigo Escobar Bil, an investigator with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said the country's prisoners deserve better.
"It's likely that something grave will happen in the future in Honduras' prisons, given that the situation hasn't changed from what existed three months ago," he said after touring a prison last month.
The United Nations' Honduras Subcommittee Against Torture reported in 2010 that corruption pervades the entire system, from prison staff to outsiders, ensuring "a silence ... a guarantee of impunity."
Throughout the tour, prisoners could be seen visiting with their wives and playing with their children. Prison clerks wearing blue jackets never stopped moving, carrying packages of food, tobacco or money sent from family members. In one corner, a band with an electric guitar practiced while in another a group watched Real Madrid play soccer on TV.
Starting at about 75 lempiras ($3.50) a week, inmates can pay to have their floors cleaned or air conditioning repaired. They can buy beer at three times the street price, drugs and a night with a woman.
The profits are distributed among the workers, stall owners and the prison administration, Polanco said.
The administration cut is 120,000 lempiras ($6,000) a month, which pays for maintenance, gas to transport prisoners to court or the hospital and to serve better food, said Hugo Hernandez, San Pedro Sula prison administrator.
"The state gives us 13 lempiras per inmate (about 60 cents) a day for food. With that money, they would starve, so I have to find a way to cover the rest," he said.