More than half those locked up in a Honduras prison where a fire killed hundreds of inmates had not been convicted of any crime, according to reports, pointing to the brutal impact of the government’s stringent anti-gang laws.
The fire broke out at 10:50 p.m. on Tuesday, and raged through the crowded prison, killing 358 inmates (with reports that one of the dead was a visitor) who were trapped in their cells.
The Associated Press reports that a document submitted by the Honduran government to the United Nations states that most of the prisoners had not been charged or convicted of any crime.
Some reports attribute the fire to an electrical short circuit, but the story that seems to be emerging is that it began when an inmate set his mattress on fire. Comayagua Governor Paola Castro claimed that she had received a phone call shortly before the fire broke out, in which a prisoner said they would burn down the prison “and we will all die.”
More prisoners managed to survive in units further away from the block where the fire broke out, because they had more time to break the roof open and escape.
As details of the fire have emerged, the disaster seems more and more damning for Honduran prison authorities.
Prison guards reportedly shot at prisoners who were trying to escape the blaze. One surviving prisoner told El Heraldo that “When the fire began we screamed to those that had the keys, but they didn’t want to open, instead they shot at us. Some [inmates] thew themselves off the top of the building, and broke their bones.” Shots can be heard in video footage of the fire (see below).
Guards also reportedly fired shots at panicked relatives waiting outside, and prevented the firefighters from entering the complex. The head of the local firefighting unit reportedly said that they were kept waiting outside for 30 minutes by prison staff, who feared a mass break-out. Other reports, however, quote him as saying his unit was delayed for only five minutes.
According to the AP, there were only 12 guards were on duty at night, and 51 during the day, supervising the prison’s more than 850 inmates. This understaffing likely contributed to the failure to save more lives.
Honduras’ prisons have a capacity for 8,000 prisoners, but may hold as many as 13,000, according to figures quoted by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Comayagua was more overcrowded than most, holding more than double the 400 it was designed for.
Tellingly, however, Comayagua prison was not considered among the worst equipped in the country. It was not included in the July 2010 emergency which applied to nine of the country’s 24 prison facilities.
Most disturbing of all may be reports that most of the inmates — 57 percent — had not been convicted. Many had been jailed simply because they had a tattoo that was taken to signify gang membership, according to the AP.
In 2002, Honduras implemented a policy known as the “mano dura” or iron fist, which made gang membership illegal, and punishable by 12 years in prison. The legal system cannot cope with the volume of cases, leaving many of those detained in legal limbo, waiting for a trial or even for charges to be placed against them.
This is not the first time the harsh anti-gang policies have been linked to prison deaths. Last year, the Honduran government was accused before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of failing to properly investigate the deaths of 107 inmates at a fire in a prison in San Pedro Sula in 2004. According to the allegations, the deaths were a direct result of structural problems in the prison; “The victims were persons accused of belonging to maras (gangs), who were kept isolated from the rest of the prison population and confined to an unsafe and unsanitary area.”
In 2003, 69 people, most of them inmates accused of being members of the gang Barrio 18, were shot or stabbed to death in a clash in the prison El Porvenir, near the city La Ceiba. The authorities said the deaths took place during an operation to disarm inmates, which led to the gang members rioting and lighting a “suicidal fire.” However, prison guards have been accused of carrying out a massacre of the suspected gang members.
At a time when El Salvador seems poised to return to discredited iron fist policies, with its justice minister saying he is prepared to lock up another 10,000 gang members, Honduras’ tragedy serves as a graphic illustration of the failures of this approach.