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By Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - Some 22 gang members escaped from one of Hondura's most overcrowded prisons this week ahead of a transfer to a higher-security facility, defying the military guards tasked with bringing order to the prison system, an official said Saturday.

The inmates, who had been locked up in the special "Scorpion" unit for members of the notorious Barrio 18 gang, made their escape from the medium-security Marco Aurelio Soto prison late on Thursday, said Rosa Gudiel, the head of Hondura's National Penitentiary Institute.

The jail's director and several guards have been put on leave as authorities look for the prisoners and investigate the escape, the biggest in more than a decade in crime-ravaged Honduras, said Gudiel.

"The prisoners fled because arrangements are being made to transfer them to new, high-security jails and they don't want to go to those places," Gudiel told a press conference.

She did not say why authorities did not disclose the jailbreak before Saturday.

Honduras has been transferring imprisoned members of the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs to higher-security prisons in a bid to curb the extortion, killings and drug deals they often coordinate from behind bars.

Just north of the capital Tegucigalpa, Marco Aurelio Soto is one of the most overpopulated prisons in Honduras, where some 17,000 inmates are held in a system designed to hold 8,000.

In recent weeks the government has transferred some 740 inmates to higher-security prisons. Authorities are planning to move inmates from Marco Aurelio Soto to a new prison in eastern Honduras soon.

In 2014, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez ordered the military to supervise the country's biggest prisons.

(Reporting By Gustavo Palencia, Writing By Mitra Taj; Editing by Mary Milliken)

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