Honduras fire inmates had not been convicted

Thursday , February 16, 2012 - 1:30 PM

Christine Armario, Martha Mendoza

COMAYAGUA, Honduras-- The prisoners whose scorched bodies were carried out piece by piece Thursday morning from a charred Honduran prison had been locked inside an overcrowded penitentiary where most inmates had never been charged, let alone convicted, according to an internal Honduran government report obtained by The Associated Press.

The Honduran government report, which was sent to the United Nations this month, said 57 percent of some 800 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country's capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

A fire that witnesses said was started by an inmate tore through the prison Tuesday night, burning and suffocating screaming men in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys. The death toll was at 355 Thursday afternoon, according to attorney general's spokesman Melvin Duarte, making it the world's deadliest prison fire in a century.

Honduran authorities said they are still investigating other possible causes based on prisoner accounts, including that the fire 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," Duarte said.

Survivors told horrific tales of climbing walls to break the sheet metal roofing and escape, only to see prisoners in other cell blocks being burned alive. Inmates were found stuck to the roofing, their bodies fused to the metal.

From the time firefighters received a call at 10:59 p.m. local time, the rescue was marred by human error and conditions that made the prison ripe for catastrophe.

According to the report, obtained exclusively by the AP, on any given day there were about 800 inmates in a facility built for 500. There were only 51 guards by day and just 12 at night.

On the night of the fire, only six guards were on duty, four of them in towers overlooking the prison and two in the facility itself, Fidel Tejeda, a guard at the prison for 14 years, told The Associated Press. One of those guards held all the keys to the prison doors, he said.

Tejeda was in one of the towers and fired two shots as a warning to the other guards when he first saw flames at about 10:50 p.m., he said as he stood in uniform outside the prison Thursday morning, rifle in hand.

"Six officers were on guard," he said. Prison rules prevented him from leaving his post to help with the rescue.

"It would be a criminal act," he said.

Tejeda said firefighters took about half an hour to arrive.

Miguel Angel Lopez, a guard who was on duty inside the prison, separately told the AP that he had called the fire department as soon as he saw there was a fire, but crews took about 30 minutes to show up.

The Comayagua fire chief has said his men were there in 10 minutes but were kept outside the gates by guards who feared the fire was cover for a prison break.

Honduran prisons have long been sites of human rights violations, according to the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and human rights organizations.

Nationwide, more than half of the 11,000 inmates in the country's 24 prisons are awaiting trial.

Every prison is crammed with more people than it was built for, and there's rarely enough food. Guards beat and torture prisoners, and gangs control the facilities, taking advantage of staffing ratios that on any given day amount to one guard for every 65 prisoners.

At Comayagua, prisoners supported themselves, growing corn and beans, and raising fish and chicken, on the 36 acres of farmland surrounding the facility.

The Honduran government report shows Comayagua authorities routinely confiscate marijuana and crack, handmade weapons and cell phones.

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.

The prison has no medical or mental health care and the budget allows less than $1 per day per prisoner for food. Prisoners only needed to bear a simple tattoo to be incarcerated under the strict Honduran anti-gang laws, the report said. The U.N. condemns the practice as a violation of international law.

"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.

National prison system director Danilo Orellana declined to comment on the supervision or the crowded conditions in Comayagua. He referred an AP reporter to the commander of the prison police, who said comment would have to come from his public affairs office, which did not respond to an AP request late Wednesday.

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

Inside the prison, charred walls and debris showed the path of the fire, which burned through six barracks that had been crammed with 70 to 105 inmates each in four-level bunk beds.

Bodies were found piled up 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, 40, as he was led away by police Wednesday night, handcuffed, to testify before a local court about what he saw. "I only saw flames, and when we got out, men were being burned, up against the bars, they were stuck to them."

A team of 17 pathologists were working in three groups in the capital's main morgue to identify the victims with the help of fingerprints and dental records. The government of Chile was sending a team of 14 pathologists to help.

About 115 bodies were in the morgue Thursday morning, after being moved by refrigerated truck overnight. At least six were burnt beyond recognition, Duarte said.

More than 800 relatives were staying in temporary housing south of the capital while they awaited the arrival of their loved ones' bodies.

The deadly inferno never had to happen.

The frantic inmate who started the fire gave warning, phoning the state governor and screaming he was going to burn the place down. After the man, who wasn't identified, lit a mattress on fire a few minutes later, crews said they rushed to the prison, arriving two minutes after a call for help because the firehouse was nearby. But the handful of guards held them out for a catastrophic 30 minutes, saying they thought the screams inside were a prison break and a riot. When rescuers finally were allowed in, they said they couldn't find keys or guards to unlock the barracks.

Fifteen minutes away, the U.S. military's Southern Command operates Joint Task Force Bravo, where major search and rescue teams and fire squads are on standby. They were never dispatched.

Capt. Candace Allen, a spokeswoman for Joint Task Force Bravo, said they can only send what they're asked for, so throughout the night they sent surgical masks, flashlights and glow sticks. No one asked for firefighters.

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 flank the front entrance where a sign reads: "Let there be justice, even if the world perishes."

Honduran authorities were investigating several separate allegations from prisoners about the cause of the fire, including the suggestion that it was caused by an electrical short and not arson.

Duarte said investigators had also been told that some prisoners had paid guards to set the fire in order to create chaos and allow a prison break.

"All of this isn't confirmed, but we're looking into it," he told The Associated Press.

"Conditions at Comayagua? I'd have to say among the worst in Honduras," said Ron W. Nikkel, president of Prison Fellowship International who visited the facility in 2005. "It was very congested, there's not enough food, it's dangerous and dirty."

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

"The ready access of prisoners to weapons and other contraband, impunity for inmate attacks against nonviolent prisoners, inmate escapes, and threats by inmates and their associates outside prisons against prison officials and their families contributed to an unstable and dangerous penitentiary system environment," says the most recent State Department report on human rights in Honduras. "There were reports that prisoners were tortured or otherwise abused in, or on their way to, prisons and other detention facilities."

Human rights groups and the U.S. government also say inmates with mental illnesses, as well as those with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, are routinely held among the general prison population.

Filmmaker Oscar Estrada, whose documentary "El Porvenir" focused on a 2003 Honduran prison riot, said the fire was one of several in recent years, including a 2004 blaze that killed more than 100 inmates.

"When fires break out, they will not open gates to release prisoners and they die inside. It's happened before. They haven't learned because this is a collapsing country, they're not interested in making change," he said.

Prison historian Mitchel P. Roth said fires pose a major challenge for prisons.

"Prisoners set fires in their cells all the time, either for attention, to attack someone, or some people just like fire," said Roth, a professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

Prisoners are typically locked in their cells while poorly trained guards may be scrambling to save their own lives, added Roth, who is writing a book about a 1930 fire in Ohio that killed 322 prisoners in just 30 minutes.

"There's rarely time to react as that smoke spreads," he said. "This was one of those tragedies waiting to happen."

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Mendoza reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Alberto Arce contributed to this report from Mexico City.

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