Asuncion – A police officer and 11 inmates died in Paraguay Monday in a fierce gunfight that erupted during an attempt to transfer a drug trafficker who controlled part of a prison, authorities said.
The drug trafficker, Javier Rotela, was captured in a section of the prison known as “The Jungle,” where he lived in comfort with his pregnant wife and three pit bulls and ran a small supermarket, said police commissioner Nimio Cardozo.
He said more than 2 200 police and soldiers had taken part in the operation at Tacumbu prison, about 15 blocks from the center of the capital, Asuncion.
“We have counted 11 inmate deaths, most hit with projectiles,” medical examiner Pablo Lemir told journalists.
Prisoners opened fire on the officers, one of whom was shot in the head and died, while another is in intensive care for a bullet wound to the temple, Cardozo said.
National police chief Carlos Benitez told journalists another 36 officers and 24 prisoners had bullet wounds, a “partial count” as a search of the prison continued.
“With firmness and determination we have carried out a historic and unprecedented operation in order to build a safer country for our families,” President Santiago Pena told a news conference.
“For decades, as everyone has known, Tacumbu Prison became a center from where criminal groups operated, planning assaults and distributing narcotics,” he added.
“Today we say enough to… a penitentiary model that turned prisons into true schools of crime.”
Rotela is the head of the “Rotela Clan,” involved in drug trafficking in the urban centers of Paraguay, authorities say.
According to criminologist Juan Martens, Rotela also has some 7 000 gang members under his command in various penitentiaries in the country.
Cardozo said automatic weapons were confiscated during the operation.
Some 700 prisoners, all bare-chested and handcuffed, were loaded into army and police buses to be transferred to other prisons.
Tacumbu prison has been gripped by several riots under Rotela’s control.
In October inmates took 22 guards hostage at the prison for 15 hours, and set alight mattresses during a riot. One prisoner was later found dead, with deep slashes to his abdomen.
The jail houses almost double its capacity of 1 500 inmates.
Paraguay, a country of 6.5 million inhabitants, has around 16 000 inmates spread across 18 prisons.