Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fire Kills Hundreds in Overcrowded Honduran Prison

More than 300 inmates are feared to have died when a fire broke out in a prison in Honduras

Authorities said that 356 prisoners were unaccounted for out of the total 852, but said that some of these might have escaped. One of the dead is a female visitor who was staying overnight.

The fire began Tuesday night in the prison in Comayagua, but it is not yet known whether it was caused by an electrical fault or by an inmate setting fire to a mattress. Local fire fighters described hellish scenes, reporting that "some 100 prisoners were burned to death or suffocated in their cells. … "We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them."

One prisoner told local media that their calls for help were at first ignored. “"For a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out," he said.”

The tragedy highlights the deep problems of the Honduran prison system -- the Comayagua facility was well over capacity in terms of number of inmates it was designed to hold, according to Reuters.

One reason for overcrowding in Honduras’ prisons is the “mano dura” or iron fist approach to crime, which concentrates on locking up members of youth gangs, sometimes just for being associated with the gangs rather than for a specific crime. Overcrowding and lack of resources means that discipline is poor. Prisons are dominated by powerful gangs of inmates, and criminals often carry on their activities from inside the jails. Some half of all extortions in Tegucigalpa are carried out from within the city’s jail, according to Honduran authorities.

The shortcomings of the prison system have been exposed again and again by incidents in which prisoners lose their lives. In 2004, more than 100 inmates died in a fire in a prison in the city of San Pedro Sula. In 2006, 13 inmates died in a riot in a prison north of Tegucigalpa. Nine died in riots in a San Pedro Sula prison as recently as October.

In 2010 President Porfirio Lobo declared an emergency in July 2010 in nine of the country’s 24 prisons. This latest disaster could force the government to carry out real reforms.

News Briefs
  • Fresh from his calls for debate on drug legalization, Guatemala’s new President Otto Perez has made more progressive statements on security. Voted in on a tough-on-crime platform, the president has now said that he will tackle hunger as part of his security strategy, declaring that “Hunger is also violence, and is also a security problem,” reports the Associated Press. As website Plaza Publicahas pointed out, more people die in Guatemala from hunger than from violence, with some 18 minors dying each day from malnutrition, and 15 - 17 from violence.
  • Colombia’s government has contributed to the debate on drug legalization kicked off by Perez, with Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin saying that the war on drugs should be a topic for discussion at April’s Summit of the Americas. “The war on drugs certainly has not been as successful as it should be, and it is an issue that the countries must discuss, and soften their position on what to do.” President Juan Manuel Santos has questioned the zero-tolerance attitude to drugs a number of times.
  • The New York Times’ Latitude blog looks at Venezuela’s opposition candidate for the presidency, Henrique Capriles, who it says is an “understated, sensible and trustworthy problem-solver,” running on the sober slogan “Nobody said it was going to be easy.” Capriles condemned the Supreme Court’s decision to prevent the opposition destroying the records of votes cast in their primary elections, in which he was selected, with a larger-than-expected 2.9 million votes. He calledthe move an attempt to “instill fear.” The WSJ reports that Chavez allies have begun a smear campaign against the candidate, using his Jewish background and affluent family as ammunition, as well as questioning his sexuality.
  • A piece in the Arizona Daily Star criticizes a state proposal to fund a volunteer militia group on the Mexican-US border, saying sarcastically; “it's always helpful to have more armed and slightly trained people on the border. This is just what the border needs.” The group was created in 2011, and lawmakers are asking for $1.9 million for it
  • Mexico announced the arrest of Jaime Herrera Herrera, alias “El Viejito,” accused of being a top methamphetamine producer for the Sinaloa Cartel. This follows the seizure of a record 15 tons of the drug last week.
  • A Mexican government official has called the latest US travel warnings on his country “ridiculous” and “out of proportion.” The warnings, issued last week, cautioned against non-essential travel to 14 of the country’s 31 states, including almost the entire northern border region.
  • The AP reports on the case of two Colombian priests, killed last year in a double shooting, who seemingly committed suicide by hiring hitmen to kill themselves. One of the men had reportedly been diagnosed with AIDS.
  • Honduras Culture and Politics blog highlights the “first backlash” against the government’s Operation Lightening, a security surge in which the army has been sent out on patrol with police. It quotes reports that residents of the town of Ocotillo have blockaded the area to protest against the presence of soldiers stationed there. The military are reportedly employing heavy-handed and abusive tactics, pressuring young men to admit to gang membership and checking ID of everyone on public buses.
  • Actor Sean Penn has brought his influence to bear on the controversy over the Falklands Islands (Malvinas), accusing the UK of “provoking” Argentina by deploying Prince William, a search and rescue pilot, to the islands. "There are many places to deploy a prince," he noted epigrammatically. "It's not necessary when the deployment of a prince is generally accompanied by a warship, to send them into seas of such spilled blood."

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