TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The inferno that killed 356 inmates at Honduras' Comayagua prison will almost certainly be followed by disasters in other jails in Central and South America, government officials and outside observers warn.
Comayagua, the site of the world's worst prison fire in a century, was decrepit and badly maintained, a grimy, suffocating place of overcrowded, dark barracks with single, hand-locked exits. And it was one of the better prisons in Honduras, a medium-security lockup where many inmates were accused only of petty crimes.
Renan Inestroza, a congressman with Honduras' governing National Party, said Friday that a deadly prison fire could happen again anywhere in the country.
"The conditions at all 25 prisons are really the same as they were in Comayagua. There is tremendous overcrowding," he said. "The guard personnel in all of the prisons aren't trained in how to handle this type of emergency," he added.
A decade of crackdowns on Central America's out-of-control street crime and drug trafficking has left the region dotted with fire-prone prisons often crammed with more than twice the number of inmates they can safely handle.
"You have this tremendous public security crisis in the region and the quick answer that prevailed for all of these years is 'iron fist,'" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "By 'iron fist' people mean increasing penalties, making it more difficult for prisoners to get out of prison."
In 2002, Honduras implemented laws that doubled the maximum penalty for being a gang leader to 12 years incarceration. It also applied a loose definition of gang leadership, locking people up for having gang tattoos or other signs of apparent criminal affiliation.
By 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras' prison system had nearly 38 percent more prisoners than it was built for, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
The prison system in El Salvador, meanwhile, was at 253 percent capacity.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes warned Thursday that the Comayagua prison fire, Honduras' third multi-casualty fire in less than a decade, was a warning for the entire region.
"This is a structural problem that we're suffering from in the entire Central American region and it's due to the weakness of our prison policies," he said. "The prisons are overcrowded, they're overpopulated, and this is a warning call."
Guatemala's prisons were at nearly 160 percent capacity in 2010, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
"Our prisons are full of people being held for the simple act of possessing drugs," said Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla.
Panama's government said it is holding 13,525 prisoners in facilities built for 7,342. It said 9,129 of them have even been sentenced, a situation mirrored across Latin America, where the accused are jailed alongside the convicted while awaiting trial in understaffed and ponderously slow justice systems.
"Overcrowding is getting worse every day," said Ellis Rios, director of the Office of Human Rights for Panama's government ombudsman. "There are more prisoners who are moving through the prison system than those who have been convicted."
Latin American justice systems differ greatly from that of the United States, where defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty and many cases go before juries. Napoleonic Code-based systems in many Latin American countries require defendants to prove they are not guilty if an investigation results in their arrest.
"A huge reason for the overcrowding is just all these people waiting for trial," said Mark Ungar, a professor of political science at New York's City University Graduate Center who has repeatedly visited prisons around the region, including the three in Honduras that have been hit with disastrous fires in recent years.
He said Honduras was an extreme example of prison dysfunction, where the overcrowding found around the region combined with chaotically bad administration and an extreme problems with prison gangs.
"The way they lock them up in these quarters, there's no escape route," Ungar said. "It's an extreme inattention to the physical condition leading up to fire. It's unbelievable how this happened again."
Maria Leticia Alvarado, a homemaker, 56, said her son, Gerson Orlando Ortez, 27, a taxi driver, had been in Comayagua for four months, accused of trying to steal a wallet. She said a lawyer told her the maximum prison term he could have faced was a month less than he had been in prison, "but he hadn't even been given a hearing" yet. Her son is listed among the dead.
"They catch someone stealing a hen and they put them in jail for 50 years, but the big criminals, the white collar criminals, they never catch them," Alvarado said.
Asked whether the get-tough approach against crime was working, Alvarado said no. "That's a lie. Not even God can put an end to crime. Crime is established in this country."
Vilma Nunez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, said the crisis in Central American jails is so serious that what happened at Comayagua could occur anywhere in the region.
"The situation in penitentiaries in Central America is very, very serious and comes from overcrowding, lack of security, poor conditions and the inhuman treatment that these people receive from their jailers," Nunez told Nicaragua's Channel 15 television station.
In Brazil, critics say authorities long ago lost control over the activities of the 514,000 inmates in that nation's more than 1,200 prisons. Jailbreaks are routine and prison uprisings happen with frequency. Top drug gang leaders maintain their grip on power in the slums across the nation from behind bars.
In its 2011 country report on Brazil, Amnesty International said that "torture, overcrowding and degrading conditions continued to characterize the prison and juvenile detention systems where lack of effective control led to riots resulting in a number of deaths."
The report went on to note that Brazilian prisons "remained severely overcrowded and inmates were held in conditions amounting to cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment."
Associated Press writers Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Romina Ruiz-Goiriena in Guatemala City, Juan Zamorano in Panama City and Filadelfo Aleman in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.