TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The world's worst prison fire in a century happened in a lockup like many in Honduras: a decrepit, suffocating place of overcrowded, dark cellblocks where many inmates were accused only of petty crimes.
Experts warn a similar disaster could happen again in Central America, where a decade of crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs and out-of-control street crime has left the region dotted with fire-prone prisons often crammed with more than twice the number of inmates they can safely handle.
"You have this tremendous public security crisis and the quick answer that prevailed for all of these years is 'iron fist,'" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
"By 'iron fist,' you mean increasing penalties, making it more difficult for prisoners to get out of prison," he said. Inmates languish for months, or even years, as their cases slowly move through backlogged judicial systems.
Honduras implemented laws in 2003 that doubled the maximum penalty for being a gang leader to 12 years incarceration. Officials also applied a loose definition of gang leadership, locking people up for having gang tattoos or other signs of apparent criminal affiliation.
That started a wave in Central America, where countries like El Salvador and Guatemala passed their own laws against "Mara" street gangs.
"When the anti-mara laws were approved, that caused a saturation of mara gang members in all of the prisons, it was no longer just common crime," said Renan Inestroza, a congressman with Honduras' governing National Party.
By 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras' prison system had nearly 38 percent more prisoners than it was built for, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
Conditions were ripe for disaster Tuesday, when a fire set by an inmate raced through overcrowded Comayagua prison, burning and suffocating 357 screaming people in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for the only set of keys to the facility.
Only six guards were on duty, responsible for 852 prisoners. And the guard with the keys fled, leaving hundreds to burn in their cells.
"The conditions at all 25 prisons are really the same as they were in Comayagua," Inestroza said. "There is tremendous overcrowding."
"The guard personnel in all of the prisons aren't trained in how to handle this type of emergency," he said.
It's the same throughout much of Central America: Prisons in El Salvador are at 253 percent capacity, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, and lockups in Guatemala at 160 percent. Panama's prisons are filled with nearly twice as many inmates as they were built for.
"This is a structural problem that we're suffering from in the entire Central American region and it's due to the weakness of our prison policies," Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes said. "The prisons are overcrowded, they're overpopulated, and this is a warning call."
An inferno like the one at Comayagua — the third deadly prison fire in a decade in Honduras — could happen anywhere in the region, he warned.
In Geneva, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Friday for a "thorough independent investigation" into the Comayagua fire.
The U.N. agency "is concerned that the problems affecting prisons are by no means confined to Honduras," spokesman Rupert Colville said. "In recent weeks there has been a wave of violence in prisons across Latin America, resulting in loss of lives in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, and Chile."
"These events reflect an alarming pattern of prison violence in the region, which is a direct consequence of, or aggravated by, a range of endemic problems including chronic prison overcrowding, the lack of access to basic services such as adequate floor space, potable water, food, health care, and lack of basic sanitary and hygienic standards," Colville added. "Such conditions are exacerbated by judicial delays and excessive resort to pretrial detention."
Justice systems in Latin America differ greatly from that of the United States, where defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty and many cases go before juries. Napoleonic Code-based systems in many Latin American countries require defendants to prove they are not guilty if an investigation results in their arrest.
"A huge reason for the overcrowding is just all these people waiting for trial," said Mark Ungar, a professor of political science at New York's City University Graduate Center who has visited prisons around the region, including the three in Honduras that were hit with disastrous fires.
He said Honduras was an extreme example of prison dysfunction, where the overcrowding found around the region combined with chaotically bad administration and extreme problems with prison gangs.
"The way they lock them up in these quarters, there's no escape route," Ungar said. "It's an extreme inattention to the physical condition leading up to fire. It's unbelievable how this happened again."
Comayagua was far from the worst prison in Honduras. It wasn't included in a presidential emergency decree in 2010 covering nine of the country's two dozen prisons, a measure that sought to reduce overcrowding and separate the worst offenders from those doing time for lesser offenses.
"This prison was not included in the emergency decree because it was thought to have better conditions, imagine that," President Porfirio Lobo said in remarks broadcast Friday. Some relatives of the fire victims said inmates preferred to be at Comayagua, because it was less violent.
Maria Leticia Alvarado said her 27-year-old son, Gerson Orlando Ortez, a taxi driver, had been in Comayagua for four months, accused of trying to steal a wallet. She said a lawyer told her the maximum prison sentence he could have faced if convicted was a month less than he had already been in prison.
"But he hadn't even been given a hearing yet," she said. Her son is now among those listed as dead in the disaster.
"They catch someone stealing a hen and they put them in jail for 50 years, but the big criminals, the white collar criminals, they never catch them," Alvarado said.
Vilma Nunez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, said the crisis in Central American jails is so serious that what happened at Comayagua could occur anywhere in the region.
"The situation in penitentiaries in Central America is very, very serious and comes from overcrowding, lack of security, poor conditions and the inhuman treatment that these people receive from their jailers," Nunez told Nicaragua's Channel 15 television station.
In Brazil, critics say authorities long ago lost control over the activities of the 514,000 inmates in that nation's more than 1,200 prisons. Jailbreaks are routine and prison uprisings happen with frequency. Top drug gang leaders maintain their grip on power in the slums across the nation from behind bars.
In its 2011 country report on Brazil, Amnesty International said that "torture, overcrowding and degrading conditions continued to characterize the prison and juvenile detention systems where lack of effective control led to riots resulting in a number of deaths."
The report went on to note that Brazilian prisons "remained severely overcrowded and inmates were held in conditions amounting to cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment."
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson reported this story in Tegucigalpa and Michael Weissenstein reported from Mexico City. AP writers Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena in Guatemala City, Juan Zamorano in Panama City and Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.