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Death Toll Soars in Prison Fire in Honduras

February 15, 2012
The New York Times
MEXICO CITY — A fire at a prison in central Honduras has killed more than 300 people, officials said Wednesday, among the worst prison disasters in recent years in Latin America and the latest crisis for a country rattled by surging violence.
Prison officials said they were still sorting through the devastation, telling reporters on Wednesday morning that 357 people were missing and presumed dead in the blaze at the federal prison in Comayagua, about 45 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa. The authorities also said another 400 inmates may have escaped in the chaos.
Survivors recounted horrific scenes of companions ablaze and people trapped in their cells after the fire broke out on Tuesday night and burned out of control for 40 minutes before the first rescuers arrived around 11:30 p.m., according to La Tribuna, a newspaper in Tegucigalpa. The Associated Press said help was delayed because a guard with the proper key could not be located.
“We were asleep when we suddenly heard the screams of people on fire,” said a survivor interviewed on the Televicentro television network outside the prison, where a proverb over the entrance reads, “Let justice be done even if the world perishes.” The survivor continued: “Many of our companions were killed.”
The cause was not known. Investigators were looking into whether it was started by an inmate who set fire to mattress in his cell.
Honduran prisons, like many in Central America, are notorious for overcrowding and violence, a problem made only worse as drug trafficking gangs overrun the nation and set up staging grounds to move cocaine from South America to the United States.
Its institutions are still recovering from a 2009 coup. The police are committing murders. Criminal groups are extorting and kidnapping almost at will. The Peace Corps has withdrawn from the country over concerns about crime.
The government recently accepted a technical team from the United States to cope with the security crisis.
A United Nations report in October said Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world, at 82.1 per 100,000 residents, far ahead of the worldwide rate of 6.9.
While Latin America prisons in general are notoriously overcrowded and susceptible to fires and rioting, the problem in Honduras is particularly serious, according to human rights groups and other monitors.
The country’s 24 prisons house nearly 13,000 inmates, but the capacity is believed to be around 8,000, and in 2010 the government declared a state of emergency in the system. Oscar Alvarez, then security director, said nine of the prisons did not meet the minimum requirements to serve as penitentiaries.
Pompeyo Bonilla, the current security minister, told CNN Espanol at the scene of the fire that as the country is increasingly overrun by drug traffickers and criminal groups the prison system has struggled to keep up.
“It’s a problem all of Central America is suffering due to the organized crime from transnational groups,” he said. “We are living through a dramatic security situation.”
In 2003, a riot in a Honduran prison left 68 dead, 51 of them shot, stabbed, beaten or burned to death by police, soldiers or prison staff, according to a report by the government, which promised to revamp and improve the system.
But the following year, a fire, believed to have been caused by a short circuit, killed more than 100 prisoners in another overcrowded facility, most of them gang members.
“This horrendous tragedy is the result of prison conditions that are symptomatic of the country’s larger public security crisis,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch. “With the Honduran public facing one of the highest homicide rates in the world, there’s huge pressure to lock up real and suspected criminals and unfortunately almost no concern for these prisoners’ well-being.”
The victims in the latest fire were burned to death or were asphyxiated in their cells, prison officials told local news media. Several were taken to hospital and television footage showed the severely injured partly clad and writhing on stretchers.
President Porfirio Lobo said an investigation had begun and international aid was on its way. The Organization of American States said its human rights division would send a delegation to investigate the fire, and Mr. Lobo said he had suspended the prison’s administrators until an investigation was conducted.
The prison was believed to hold more than 900 inmates but its original capacity was unclear.
The Comayagua prison is a medium security facility where the inmates, as part of a rehabilitation program, grow their own food, sew uniforms for the national police, and do woodwork.
Karla Zabludovsky contributed reporting
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