Honduras: at least 360 killed as prison “time bomb” explodes

At least 360 inmates were killed the night of Feb. 14 when a fierce blaze swept through a central prison in Comayagua, Honduras, with several more hospitalized with severe burns. Many victims were burned or suffocated to death in their cells. The nation has been shocked by images of prisoners burned alive clinging to the bars of their cells, desperate to escape. According to one prisoner who escaped by breaking through his ceiling, the guards did not react to pleas for help, and one even flung the keys away, abandoning them before he fled. Other reports indicate guards actually had no keys for exits that inmates fled for—that there was just one set of keys for the facility. Investigators believe the fire started when one prisoner set his mattress alight, possibly in a gang-related conflict. The fire spread rapidly through the wood structure of the prison. After the blaze, relatives of prisoners clashed with police as they tried to force their way into the ruined prison, desperate for news about their loved ones. Police responded with tear gas, and fired shots into the air. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa pledged a “full and transparent” investigation into the “lamentable and unacceptable” tragedy.

The Comayagua prison was designed for 250 inmates but held more than 800, said Reinaldo Moncada, head of prison ministries for the Diocese of Comayagua. “There were completely inhumane conditions inside,” he said. Many of the inmates there had never been convicted of any crime—some 57% were there awaiting trial of charges of being gang members.

A fire in 2004 killed more than 100 at a prison north of Tegucigalpa. Government officials were convicted in a prison fire that killed 69 people in 2003. In 1994, an accidental prison fire killed 103 inmates. Advocates have long warned that the country’s overcrowded prisons are “time bombs.” (AP, Feb. 16; Red Morazánica de Información, BBC News, The Guardian, USA Today, Feb. 15)