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After deadly shootings, report says Panama prisons deficient

PANAMA CITY — A report on prison security highlighted severe deficiencies and “permissiveness” in Panama’s penitentiary system a month after the country’s deadliest outbreak of prison violence and called for urgent corrective measures.

The report commissioned by President Laurentino Cortizo and issued late Tuesday also lowered the death toll from the Dec. 17 shootings between inmates at La Joyita lockup on the outskirts of the capital to 13 with 14 wounded, down from 15 previously said to have died. Officials did not explain the change.

The violence reflected a years-old problem of arms, drugs, cellphones, knives and other contraband being smuggled into La Joyita and other prisons, but most attention-grabbing was the use of multiple assault rifles.

Public Security Ministry Rolando Mirones said that in the cellblock where the violence broke out, authorities found two holes about 2 yards (2 metres) deep with concrete covers that had been used to hide the rifles.

La Joyita, set on a former military base, does not have a wall around it nor security cameras, the metal perimeter fences are “deteriorated” and some guard towers have fallen down, said Mirones, who delivered the report together with Government Minister Carlos Romero.

Such conditions “are inadequate for penitentiary use,” Mirones said.

“We found a penitentiary system that is degraded, permissive, with very few controls,” Romero said.

Security analyst Severino Mejía of the University of Panama’s Institute of Criminology agreed that prison security is deficient.

“The matter of weapons entering and all that moves around in the prison is a problem of control and supervision,” Mejía said, noting that that has led Cortizo to propose a bill on creating a prison security service.

“There is no doubt that the penitentiary system, which is an old and recurring problem, was neglected,” Mejía added. “This is not a case unique to Panama — in most countries of Latin America, the prisons are centres for human dumping grounds.”

Last month’s violence broke out in a cellblock housing members of a single gang, and the underlying causes remain unknown.

There are about 17,000 inmates in the overall prison complex, representing about 60% of the country’s prison population.

The report also recommended investments in security and technology.

Juan Zamorano, The Associated Press