Comayagua prison fire
|Comayagua prison fire|
|Date(s)||14 February 2012
15 February 2012
|Cause||Suspected electrical fault or riot|
The Comayagua prison fire was a deadly fire that occurred 14/15 February 2012 at the National Penitentiary in Comayagua, Honduras, killing 360 people. Among the dead were the spouses of inmates on conjugal visits. Prisoners trapped in their cells died by burning or suffocation; dozens were burned beyond recognition. The fire in the prison started late in the evening of 14 February. According to one prisoner, calls for help went out almost immediately and "for a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out." Rescue forces did not arrive until about 40 minutes later.
There were 857 prisoners officially listed on the roster for the prison. The Comayagua prison is considered a medium security facility, but many of the inmates were being housed for serious crimes, such as murder and armed robbery. Around 475 prisoners escaped from the fire, many through the roof of the facility, while 358 are missing and presumed dead. Several prisoners jumped over the walls of the prison to escape the fire, and that was when the prison guards reportedly shot at them. According to firefighters, around 100 inmates burned to death or suffocated in their cells as the keys to release them could not be located. Around 30 prisoners were transported to the capital to receive specialist treatment for severe burns. Paola Castro, the local governor, claimed that she called the Red Cross and the firefighters, but it took them around 20 to 30 minutes to get to the prison, when most of the fire had nearly subsided.
The chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office stated that it would take at least three months to identify all of the victims, mainly from DNA samples.
The exact cause of the fire is not yet known. It was initially believed to have been the result of a riot, during which an inmate's mattress was set on fire. This was denied by prison authorities who blamed it on an electrical fault. Survivors reported that an inmate was responsible for the fire. The unidentified man reportedly shouted "We will all die here!" before starting the fire. His motives are unknown. The cause was finally attributed to an innmate's careless discard of smoking unknown substance.
The Comayagua fire is the fourth prison fire in Honduras since 1994 to result in 70 or more casualties. In addition, it was reported that firefighters were unable to aid the victims right away because they heard "gunshots inside the prison," and also because they did not have the keys to enter the cells. The Soto Cano Air Base, just 15 minutes away from the prison, provided U.S. and Honduran aid at around 10:20.
Relatives of the prisoners gathered outside the facility to discover the fate of the incarcerated, eventually leading to clashes with the police. Angry family members attempted to storm the prison to claim the remains of deceased inmates and were restrained with tear gas. Some were seen hurling rocks at police officers. The President of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, has demanded a full inquest into the disaster. The Honduran authorities asked the families to "remain calm" despite the "difficult situations" in order to continue with the investigation.
After the fire, Ron W. Nikkel, the president of the Prison Fellowship International, mentioned that the prison was one of the "worst prisons" he had seen. Critics[who?] mentioned that the overpopulated cells, the constant prison riots and the inadequate conditions of the prison had brought to light the harsh and terrible conditions of Honduran prisons. The director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, explicitly said that "[the] horrendous tragedy [was] the result of prison conditions that are symptomatic of the country’s larger public security crisis." The Proceso magazine mentioned that prisons in Honduras were made to accommodate and support up to 6,000 prisoners, but they currently have more than 12,000 inmates. The prison had over 800 inmates, more than twice its intended capacity. The United States Department of State issued a report which said that the prisoners suffered from "malnutrition, overpopulation, and unsanitary facilities." They also mentioned that the prisoners have "easy access to firearms" and they often go unpunished. The security minister of Honduras claimed in 2010 that the overpopulation of the prisons makes them "universities of crime." The police forces in Honduras are believed to face another equally difficult task: finding the criminals that escaped from the prison during the fire.
- Honduras – President Porfirio Lobo Sosa promised a "full and transparent" investigation for the "unacceptable" tragedy.
- Mexico – President Felipe Calderón reiterated Mexico's solidarity with the Honduran community and pledged to send medics and aid.
- Chile – The National Congress said it would send 14 experts to help identify the burned victims.
- United States – The United States has agreed to send agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help investigate the fire at the request of the Honduran government.
- Israel – Israel's ambassador to Honduras said he would relay an offer from an Israeli company to construct four new prisons utilizing high safety and security measures.
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