Massive Honduras jail blaze kills over 350 inmates

Posted on: Thu February 16, 2012

International Highlights

COMAYAGUA: More than 350 convicts died screaming and spluttering when a huge fire ripped through a prison in Honduras, reducing large swathes of the complex to a blackened husk.

Choked by smoke and scorched by flames, hundreds of inmates scrambled to escape with their lives after an inmate apparently set fire to the overcrowded prison in Comayagua, about 75 km (45 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa on Tuesday night.

But 359 people were unable to get out and perished in the blaze, the attorney general\'s office said. It was one of the worst prison fires in history, a grim new milestone for a country the United Nations says is already the most murderous on the planet.

"I thought I was going to die," said Marco Alvarez, a 27-year-old serving time for armed robbery. "I was just thinking about saving my life. We shouted for the prisoner warden, but nobody came. Nobody would open up."

Inmates heard screams as the fire engulfed the prison, trapping inmates in their cells. Many of the bodies recovered from the gutted complex were so charred, officials said they would need to use dental records and DNA to identify them.

Furious relatives came to vent their anger outside the prison, which stands behind a fenced off field ringed with scattered palm trees where prisoners can plant crops.

Some of the protesters suspected it was a deliberate attack and that police and guards knew about it ahead of time.

"This was no accident," said Carmen Sapeda, 47, who came to see if her convict brother Wilfredo was alive.

"This was planned from inside the prison," she said as dozens of friends and family members threw sticks at police in a pickup truck and screamed "murderers" at them.

All day, rescue workers and police labored to remove bodies from the scene while angry relatives of the prisoners remonstrated with authorities.

The governor of Comayagua province, Paola Castro, said a convict had apparently started the fire.

"One inmate got in touch with me just after 11 p.m. to say another inmate had set fire to the prison in block number 6, presumably by setting fire to a mattress," she told Reuters, explaining that she had met the prisoner during her social work at the prison.

It was unclear why the inmate would have started the fire.

Honduras is ravaged by violent street gangs, brutal drug traffickers and rampant poverty. The violence on the streets is mirrored by frequent riots and deadly clashes between rival gangs behind bars.

SHOCKING

But the devastation wrought in the Comayagua prison was shocking even by Honduran standards.

By the time Red Cross volunteer Jose Manuel Gomez arrived, all he could do was gather up remains of some victims.

"We\'re placing them into bags in parts because when we grab them, they disintegrate," he said.

The inferno was the third major prison fire in Honduras since 2003 with dilapidated jails packed at more than double their capacity across the Central American nation.

Many of those who came to protest the events in Comayagua were women. Police responded to rocks being thrown by firing shots into the air and shooting tear gas at protesters.

President Porfirio Lobo said he had suspended the director of the prison and the head of the national penal system to ensure a thorough investigation.

He promised to "take urgent measures to deal with this tragedy, which has plunged all Hondurans into mourning."

Police reported that one of the dead was a woman who had stayed overnight at the prison and the rest were inmates, but noted some of those presumed dead could have escaped.

Alvarez, along with many other survivors, got out of the jail after forcing his way through the tin roof of his cell.

"There were five of us cellmates who escaped, and five who died," he told Reuters after limping out of the prison with a severe burn on his leg. "I don\'t know about the other five."

VIOLENT GANGS, DRUGS

Honduras\' violent street gangs, known as \'maras\', gained power inside Hispanic neighborhoods in the United States in the 1980s and then spread down into Central America. Their members wear distinctive tattoos and are involved in drugs and weapons trafficking, armed robbery and protection rackets.

The country is a major narcotics trafficking transit point for South American cocaine moving north to consumers in the United States, and authorities say they are grappling with a growing presence of violent Mexican drug cartels.

Honduras had more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, a rate 16 times that of the United States, according to a United Nations report last year. A slow and inefficient justice system has stretched jails to bursting point.

All told, the country\'s penitentiaries are meant to hold 6,000. But the prison population is more than 12,500. Comayagua housed more than 850 inmates, well above its limit of around 500. Officials are still investigating what caused the fire.

In 2003, a blaze broke out after a riot in another prison in northern Honduras, killing 68. An investigation found police and prison staff had shot and stabbed inmates in the melee.

The government pledged to improve the crumbling prison system but just a year later more than 100 prisoners were killed in a fire in San Pedro Sula. Survivors of that blaze said guards fired on inmates trying to escape or left them locked up to die.

A political crisis ripped through Honduras in mid-2009 when a widely-condemned coup toppled the democratically elected president but the country has been trying to heal divisions since Lobo was elected later that year. AGENCIES

COURTESY: SAMAA