Prison fire exposes corruption, chaos

Six guards, 800-plus prisoners in 10 cellblocks, one set of keys. The numbers spelled disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted.

COMAYAGUA, Honduras — Six guards, 800-plus prisoners in 10 cellblocks, one set of keys. The numbers spelled disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted.

The deadliest prison blaze in a century has exposed just how deep government dysfunction and confusion go in Honduras, a small Central American country with the world’s highest murder rate.

Prisoners’ scorched bodies were being brought to the capital of Tegucigalpa on Thursday for identification, a process authorities said could take weeks. Dozens of family members gathered outside the morgue wearing surgical masks against the strong smell of death as police called out the names of the less-charred victims who had been identified.

Most relatives said they didn’t believe the authorities’ account that a prisoner set a mattress on fire late Tuesday after threatening to burn down Comayagua prison, located 55 miles (90 kilometres) north of Tegucigalpa.

They also faulted prison officials for failing to get help inside quickly as flames engulfed the facility. Hundreds of screaming men burned and suffocated inside their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys.

“Those who lock up the prisoners are in charge of their welfare. Why couldn’t they open the doors?” said a weeping Manuela Alvardo, whose 34-year-old son died. He was to have been released in May after serving a murder sentence.

“It couldn’t have been a mattress fire. This guy wasn’t alone. He was in a crowded cell. The other prisoners wouldn’t have allowed that to happen. They would have put out the fire.”

From the time firefighters received a call at 10:59 p.m., the rescue was marred by human error and conditions inside the prison that led to catastrophe.

Only six guards were on duty, four in towers overlooking the prison and two in the facility itself, said Fidel Tejeda, who was assigned to a tower that night. One of the guards posted inside held all the keys to the prison doors, he said.

Tejeda said he fired two shots as a warning when he first saw flames about 10:50 p.m., but he said prison rules prevented him from leaving his post to help evacuate the 852 prisoners.

“It would be a criminal act,” Tejeda said Thursday, standing in uniform outside the prison.

Survivors said they watched helplessly as the guard who had the keys fled without unlocking their cells.

“He threw the keys on the floor in panic,” said Hector Daniel Martinez, who was being held as a homicide suspect.

Martinez said an inmate who was not locked in because he also worked as a nurse picked up the keys and, braving the scorching heat, went from one cell block to another, opening doors.

“He went into the flames and started breaking the locks,” said Jose Enrique Guevara, who was five years into an 11-year sentence for auto theft. “He saved us, I tell you.”

Guevara said the nurse could get only a handful of the keys and had to use a bench to break the lock of the cellblock where the fire started.

But by that time, it was already too late for hundreds of prisoners.

Inside the prison Thursday, charred walls and debris showed the path of the fire, which burned through 10 barracks that had been crammed with 70 to 105 inmates, sleeping in bunk beds piled four high and reaching to the ceiling.

Bodies were piled 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. “I saw flames, and when we got out, men were being burned, up against the bars. They were stuck to them.”

Miguel Angel Lopez, a guard on duty inside the prison, said he called the fire brigade as soon as he saw the blaze, but it took firefighters 30 minutes to get inside.

Fire officials told The Associated Press they were blocked from entering the prison for half an hour by guards who thought they had a riot or breakout on their hands.

“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.

Honduras has been the site of two other major prison fires, in 2003 and 2004, that killed a total of 176 inmates. Government officials were convicted of wrongdoing in the 2003 blaze.

The U.N. recently named Honduras as the country with the world’s highest murder rate, with 82 homicides per 100,000, much of it related to drug trafficking and street gangs. That’s almost five times higher than Mexico, where drug-related deaths are rampant. The U.S. recently pulled its Peace Corps workers from the country for security reasons.

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

Howard Berman, then-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, questioned U.S. aid to Honduras last fall, saying human rights abuses involving security forces had “reached a distressing pitch.”

“The most chilling aspect of this rather gruesome set of problems is that U.S. government assistance is flowing into the thick of it,” Berman wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

A Honduran government report obtained by the AP said 57 per cent of the inmates at Comayagua had not been convicted of any crime, but were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

This is not unusual. Nationwide, more than half of the 11,000 inmates in the country’s 24 prisons are awaiting trial, as yet unconvicted. Every prison is crammed with more people than it was built for, and there’s rarely enough food. Prisoners are beaten and tortured, and gangs control the inside because there is, on average, just one guard for every 65 prisoners.

The records show that authorities routinely confiscate marijuana and crack, handmade weapons and cellphones at Comayagua, where prisoners grow corn and beans and raise chickens on the 36 acres of farmland surrounding the facility.

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.

There was no doctor assigned to the prison, no psychological services and, unlike many other Honduran prisons, no system that allowed prisoners to earn privileges.

Honduran authorities said they are still investigating other possible causes of the fire, including that it 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,” said attorney general’s spokesman Melvin Duarte.

The Interamerican Court on Humans Rights issued a report in 2006 recommending measures to avoid prison overcrowding and training and equipment to deal with emergencies and evacuations after the fires in 2003 and 2004. It issued another critical report in 2010 noting that none of the changes had been made.

National prison system director Danilo Orellana declined to comment on the supervision or the crowded conditions at Comayagua, referring questions to the prison police commander, who did not respond to an AP request late Wednesday.

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

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 flanked the front entrance where a sign read: “Let there be justice, even if the world perishes.”

The State Department said it was sending Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators to Honduras. The team will include forensic chemists, explosives enforcement officers and dogs that can sniff out explosives and accelerants.

Just Posted

Fredericton police release scene of shooting spree, but ‘damage’ remains

FREDERICTON — Police have released the Fredericton apartment complex that was the… Continue reading

Police seek public’s help after East Coast lobster thieves strike again

SAINT-SIMON, N.B. — There has been another crustacean caper on the East… Continue reading

Court hearing on Humboldt Broncos fundraising a first under new Saskatchewan law

SASKATOON — A court hearing related to money raised following the Humboldt… Continue reading

Weed’s want ads longer, marijuana job searches up as industry grows: study

OTTAWA — The growth of Canada’s soon-to-be-legal recreational pot industry is starting… Continue reading

Google Generation’s push for more technology transforming health care: survey

TORONTO — Digitally savvy Canadians who make up the Google Generation are… Continue reading

WATCH: A horse was neglected by its owner. Now the horse is suing

ESTACADA, Ore. - Justice is an 8-year-old American quarter horse who used… Continue reading

Red Sox old-timer’s memorabilia going up for sale

BIDDEFORD, Maine — Some items belonging to one of the Boston Red… Continue reading

Rival Korea leaders to meet in Pyongyang in September

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — The rival Koreas announced Monday that North… Continue reading

Charlottesville anniversary: Peaceful protests, few arrests

WASHINGTON — Thousands of people wanting to send a message that racism… Continue reading

‘I believe music heals people’: 12-year-old records tribute for shooting victims

YARMOUTH, N.S. — Twelve-year-old Josh Cochrane of Yarmouth, N.S., watched the news… Continue reading

Fallen officers’ families gather with Justin Trudeau after tragedy

The prime minister laid flowers at the growing memorial to the four victims of Friday’s violence

Fallen officers’ families gather with prime minister after tragedy

FREDERICTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with families of fallen Fredericton… Continue reading

Liberals showcase benefits of billions spent on infrastructure projects

OTTAWA — Little more than a year before the next federal election,… Continue reading

Fredericton parade ‘a way to celebrate even in the midst of this grief’: mayor

FREDERICTON — Two days after four people were gunned down in a… Continue reading

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month