Prison Fire Exposes Dysfunction, Chaos In Honduras

Published February 16, 2012 11:45PM (EST)

COMAYAGUA, Honduras (AP) — Six guards, 800-plus prisoners in 10 cellblocks, one set of keys. The numbers added up to disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted.

The deadliest prison blaze in a century has exposed just how deep government dysfunction and confusion go in Honduras, a small Central American country with the world's highest murder rate.

Prisoners' scorched bodies were being brought to the capital of Tegucigalpa on Thursday for identification, a process authorities said could take weeks. Dozens of family members gathered outside the morgue wearing surgical masks against the strong smell of death as police called out the names of the few less-charred victims who had been identified.

Most relatives said they didn't believe the authorities' account that a prisoner set a mattress on fire late Tuesday after threatening to burn down Comayagua prison, located 55 miles (90 kilometers) north of Tegucigalpa.

They also faulted prison officials for failing to get help inside quickly as flames engulfed the facility. Hundreds of screaming men burned and suffocated inside their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys.

"Those who lock up the prisoners are in charge of their welfare. Why couldn't they open the doors?" said a weeping Manuela Alvardo, whose 34-year-old son died. He was to have been released in May after serving a murder sentence.

"It couldn't have been a mattress fire. This guy wasn't alone. He was in a crowded cell. The other prisoners wouldn't have allowed that to happen. They would have put out the fire."

From the time firefighters received a call at 10:59 p.m., the rescue was marred by human error and conditions inside the prison that led to catastrophe.

Only six guards were on duty, four in towers overlooking the prison and two in the facility itself, said Fidel Tejeda, who was assigned to a tower that night. One of the guards posted inside held all the keys to the prison doors, he said.

Tejeda said he fired two shots as a warning when he first saw flames about 10:50 p.m., but he said prison rules prevented him from leaving his post to help evacuate the 852 prisoners.

"It would be a criminal act," Tejeda said Thursday, standing in uniform outside the prison, rifle in hand.

Survivors said they watched helplessly as the guard who had the keys fled without unlocking their cells.

"He threw the keys on the floor in panic," said Hector Daniel Martinez, who was being held as a homicide suspect.

Martinez said an inmate who was not locked in because he also worked as a nurse picked up the keys and, braving the scorching heat, went from one cell block to another, opening doors.

"He went into the flames and started breaking the locks," said Jose Enrique Guevara, who was five years into an 11-year sentence for auto theft. "He saved us, I tell you."

Guevara said the nurse could get only a handful of the keys and had to use a bench to break the lock of the cellblock where the fire started.

But by that time, it was already too late for hundreds of prisoners.

Inside the prison Thursday, charred walls and debris showed the path of the fire, which burned through five of the 10 barracks, each crammed with 70 to 105 inmates, sleeping in bunk beds piled four high and reaching to the ceiling.

Bodies were piled in the bathrooms, where inmates apparently fled to the showers, hoping the water would save them from blistering flames. Prisoners perished clutching each other in bathtubs and curled up in laundry sinks.

"It was something horrible," said survivor Eladio Chica. "I saw flames, and when we got out, men were being burned, up against the bars. They were stuck to them."

Prisoners who survived unscathed or with minor injuries remained inside the prison after the fire, locked inside the undamaged cellblocks. Those with more serious injuries were taken to hospitals and were trickling back Thursday. Some were being treated by the nurse credited with saving so many lives.

Miguel Angel Lopez, a guard on duty inside the prison, said he called the fire brigade as soon as he saw the blaze, but it took firefighters 30 minutes to get inside.

Fire officials told The Associated Press they were blocked from entering the prison for half an hour by guards who thought they had a riot or breakout on their hands.

"This tragedy could have been averted or at least not been so catastrophic if there had been an emergency system in all the penitentiaries in the country," human rights prosecutor German Enamorado told HRN Radio.

Honduras has been the site of two other major prison fires, in 2003 and 2004, that killed a total of 176 inmates. Government officials were convicted of wrongdoing in the 2003 blaze.

The U.N. recently named Honduras as the country with the world's highest murder rate, with 82 homicides per 100,000, much of it related to drug trafficking and street gangs. That's almost five times higher than Mexico, where drug-related deaths are rampant. The U.S. recently pulled its Peace Corps workers from the country for security reasons.

The U.S. State Department has criticized the Honduran government for harsh prison conditions, citing severe overcrowding, malnutrition, and lack of adequate sanitation.

Howard Berman, then-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, questioned U.S. aid to Honduras last fall, saying human rights abuses involving security forces had "reached a distressing pitch."

"The most chilling aspect of this rather gruesome set of problems is that U.S. government assistance is flowing into the thick of it," Berman wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A Honduran government report obtained by the AP said 57 percent of the inmates at Comayagua had not been convicted of any crime, but were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

This is not unusual. Nationwide, more than half of the 11,000 inmates in the country's 24 prisons are awaiting trial, as yet unconvicted. Every prison is crammed with more people than it was built for, and there's rarely enough food. Prisoners are beaten and tortured, and gangs control the inside because there is, on average, just one guard for every 65 prisoners.

The records show that authorities routinely confiscate marijuana and crack, handmade weapons and cell phones at Comayagua, where prisoners grow corn and beans and raise chickens on the 36 acres of farmland surrounding the facility.

During a recent review, Comayagua's electrical system was in order, and drinking water was available. But the air and ventilation systems were listed as insufficient, and the report says prisoners were not informed of their rights.

There was no doctor assigned to the prison, no psychological services and, unlike many other Honduran prisons, no system that allowed prisoners to earn privileges.

Honduran authorities said they are still investigating other possible causes of the fire, including that it could have been set in collusion with guards to stage a prison break.

"All of this isn't confirmed, but we're looking into it," said attorney general's spokesman Melvin Duarte.

The Interamerican Court on Humans Rights issued a report in 2006 recommending measures to avoid prison overcrowding and training and equipment to deal with emergencies and evacuations after the fires in 2003 and 2004. It issued another critical report in 2010 noting that none of the changes had been made.

National prison system director Danilo Orellana declined to comment on the supervision or the crowded conditions at Comayagua, referring questions to the prison police commander, who did not respond to an AP request late Wednesday.

President Porfirio Lobo on Wednesday suspended Orellana and other top prison officials.

On Thursday morning, officials continued their investigation at the prison, where murals of Catholic saints, Jesus Christ and psalms stand out in an otherwise miserable place. Two palm trees flanked the front entrance where a sign read: "Let there be justice, even if the world perishes."

The State Department said it was sending Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators to Honduras. The team will include forensic chemists, explosives enforcement officers and dogs that can sniff out explosives and accelerants.


Mendoza reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Alberto Arce from Mexico City and Christine Armario and Marcos Aleman in Comayagua, Honduras, contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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