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Prison fire exposes dysfunction

By Martha Mendoza And Mark Stevenson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 8:21 p.m. MST

"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."

Prisoners who survived unscathed or with minor injuries remained inside the prison after the fire, locked inside the undamaged cellblocks. Those with more serious injuries were taken to hospitals and were trickling back Thursday. Some were being treated by the nurse credited with saving so many lives.

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 percent 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 cell phones 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.

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