Fire exposes dysfunction, chaos in Honduras

MARK STEVENSON MARTHA MENDOZA Associated Press Published:

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Six guards, 800 prisoners, one set of keys. The numbers spelled disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many of them men who had never been convicted of a crime.

The deadliest prison blaze in a century is exposing 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 arrived in the state capital of Tegucigalpa on Thursday for identification, which authorities said could take weeks. Dozens of family members gathered outside the morgue wearing surgical masks against the strong smell as police called out the names of the less-charred bodies they could identify.

Most relatives said they didn't believe the official version explaining the tragedy, that a prisoner set a mattress on fire after threatening late Tuesday night to burn down the farm prison 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Tegucigalpa. Honduras had been the site of two other major prison fires in the last 10 years. Government officials were convicted in one that killed 69 people in 2003.

"Those who lock up the prisoners are in charge of their welfare. Why couldn't they open the doors?" asked a weeping Manuela Alvardo, 69, who lost her 34-year-old son in the fire. He was to finish serving his murder sentence in May. "It couldn't have been a mattress fire. This guy wasn't alone. He was in a crowd. They wouldn't have allowed that to happen, they would have put out the fire."

Such is Honduras, which the U.N. recently determined suffered a murder rate of 82 homicides per 100,000, almost five times higher than Mexico. The U.S. recently pulled its Peace Corps workers from the country for security reasons, and has sent a special envoy to help the country deal with its high crime rate, much of it related to street gangs and drug trafficking.

Howard Berman, then-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, last fall questioned U.S. aid to Honduras when human rights abuses involving security forces "reached a distressing pitch." The U.S. State Department has criticized the Honduran government for harsh prison conditions, citing severe overcrowding, malnutrition and lack of adequate sanitation.

"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 Clinton.

Honduran authorities said they are still investigating other 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 said.

Elver Madrid, director of intelligence for Honduran national police, told The Associated Press outside the prison that inmates have told investigators that the fire started with a fight inside a prison barracks over a mattress.

One prisoner threatened to burn the mattress if the other didn't hand it over, and then he set it alight, according to the prisoner accounts, Madrid said. He said matches were readily available inside the prison.

Madrid said his office currently considered this to be the most credible scenario about the start of the fire.

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

From the time firefighters received a call shortly before 11 p.m. local time, the rescue was marred by human error and conditions that made the prison ripe for catastrophe.

A Honduran government report obtained by The Associated Press said 57 percent of the inmates at the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country's capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.

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. Guards who were on duty that night told the AP that there were only six on duty, four who never left their watch towers outside and two inside who would have been charged with evacuating 852 people.

Honduras prisons even before the massive fire were plagued with 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, as yet unconvicted. 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 records show Comayagua authorities routinely confiscated marijuana and crack, handmade weapons and cell phones.

Only one of the guards held all the keys to the prison's doors on the night of the fire, said Fidel Tejeda, a guard at the prison for 14 years, told The Associated Press.

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. 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 confirmed that crews were not inside for 30 minutes. He said he couldn't explain the delay.

Firefighters said the guards wouldn't allow them in because they thought they had a prison break.

"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.

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

Inside the prison, charred walls and debris marked 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."

The frantic inmate who started the fire left a cell phone message with the state governor, Paola Castro, who had once worked at the facility. Castro said Thursday that she had erased the message and didn't know the identity of the prisoner.

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

On Thursday, officials continued their investigation at the prison, where murals of Catholic saints, Jesus Christ and psalms stand out in an otherwise miserable scene. Two palm trees flank the front entrance where a sign reads: "Let there be justice, even if the world perishes."

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Mendoza reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Albert Arce in Mexico City and Christine Armario and Marcos Aleman in Comayagua, Honduras, contributed to this report.