Fire that killed 355 exposes dysfunction, chaos in Honduras
COMAYAGUA, Honduras -- Six guards, 800-plus prisoners in 10 cellblocks, one set of keys. The numbers spelled disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many yet to even be charged with a crime, much less convicted.
The deadliest prison blaze in a century has exposed 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 were being brought to the capital of Tegucigalpa on Thursday for identification, a process authorities said could take weeks. Dozens of family members gathered outside the morgue wearing surgical masks against the strong smell of death as police called out the names of the few less-charred victims who had been identified.
Most relatives said they didn't believe the authorities' account that a prisoner set a mattress on fire late Tuesday after threatening to burn down Comayagua prison, 55 miles north of Tegucigalpa.
They also faulted prison officials for failing to get help inside quickly as flames engulfed the facility. Hundreds of screaming men burned and suffocated inside their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys.
"Those who lock up the prisoners are in charge of their welfare. Why couldn't they open the doors?" said a weeping Manuela Alvardo, whose 34-year-old son died. He was to have been released in May after serving a murder sentence.
"It couldn't have been a mattress fire. This guy wasn't alone. He was in a crowded cell. The other prisoners wouldn't have allowed that to happen. They would have put out the fire."
From the time firefighters received a call at 10:59 p.m., the rescue was marred by human error and conditions inside the prison that led to catastrophe.
Only six guards were on duty, four in towers overlooking the prison and two in the facility itself, said Fidel Tejeda, who was assigned to a tower that night. One of the guards posted inside held all the keys to the prison doors, he said.
Tejeda said he fired two shots as a warning when he first saw flames about 10:50 p.m., but he said prison rules prevented him from leaving his post to help evacuate the 852 prisoners.
"It would be a criminal act," Tejeda said Thursday, standing in uniform outside the prison, rifle in hand.
Survivors said they watched helplessly as the guard who had the keys fled without unlocking their cells.
"He threw the keys on the floor in panic," said Hector Daniel Martinez, who was being held as a homicide suspect.
Martinez said an inmate who was not locked in because he also worked as a nurse picked up the keys and, braving the scorching heat, went from one cell block to another, opening doors.
"He went into the flames and started breaking the locks," said Jose Enrique Guevara, who was five years into an 11-year sentence for auto theft. "He saved us, I tell you."
Guevara said the nurse could get only a handful of the keys and had to use a bench to break the lock of the cellblock where the fire started.
But by that time, it was already too late for hundreds of prisoners.
Inside the prison Thursday, charred walls and debris showed the path of the fire, which burned through 10 barracks that had been crammed with 70 to 105 inmates, sleeping in bunk beds piled four high and reaching to the ceiling.
Bodies were piled 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. "I saw flames, and when we got out, men were being burned, up against the bars. They were stuck to them."
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.
More to explore
Former NASA astronaut Linda Godwin remembers moon landing, recalls space flightsFifty years ago this Saturday, man landed on the moon, and the country is celebrating the milestone. Former NASA astronaut Linda Godwin of Jackson said she still sees the mission as "quite an accomplishment." People understood the physics to travel...
Officials look for compromise on Center JunctionIf there was one thing everyone at the Southeast Metropolitan Planning Organization (SEMPO) meeting Wednesday could agree on, it was you can't please everybody. "But we're looking for a solution everyone can live with," said Missouri Department of...
Committee members identify pool prioritiesCape Girardeau's proposed indoor aquatic center needs to include a 50-meter competition pool and a separate recreational pool, as well as a diving well, an advisory committee concluded Wednesday. Committee members at the meeting, held at the Cape...
Former Cape councilman John Voss to run for House seat, setting up GOP battleFormer Cape Girardeau City Council member John Voss will run for a state House seat, setting up a Republican primary battle next year with state Sen. Wayne Wallingford. Voss announced his candidacy Tuesday in an emailed news release. Voss said his...
Faith compels new facility for homeless in CapeOn any given night, the Rev. Renita Green says there are a dozen or so homeless men living on the streets in Cape Girardeau. “When I say ‘on the street,’ I mean sometimes they tent, sometimes they sleep in bathrooms, some wedge themselves into...
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Lucero to headline 55-band Fawkesfest19 in CapeHomegrown multi-day music festival Fawkesfest19 is joining forces with American rock band The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus in support of the Honorable Young Men Club and Safe House for Women on Aug. 30 and 31 in downtown Cape Girardeau. Justin Aden,...
Kelly welcomes new school district superintendentBENTON, Mo. — Nearly 100 people turned out to meet Scott County “Kelly” School District’s new superintendent during a welcome reception Sunday in the high school gymnasium. After he was introduced by Kelly School Board president David Brashear,...
Southbound I-55 in Scott County reduced for bridge workSouthbound Interstate 55 in Scott County will be reduced to one lane as Missouri Department of Transportation crews perform maintenance to the bridge at mile marker 80 in Benton, Missouri. According to the MoDOT news release, the work will be done...
Flood of 2019 sets record for durationThe Mississippi River at Cape Girardeau has set a record. Today marks the 126th consecutive day the river has exceeded flood stage, breaking the previous mark of 125 days set between June 10 and Oct. 12, 1993, according to the U.S. Army Corps of...
Cape city board nixes road projects from funding listA Cape Girardeau committee developing a list of transportation-sales-tax projects has removed one proposed Veterans Memorial Drive project from consideration while keeping extension of another section of the street on the list for now. ...
Cape Council defends decision to hire consultant for aquatic projectCape Girardeau City Council members defended their decision Monday to hire a second consultant to plan for a new, indoor aquatic center. Ward 1 Councilman Daniel Presson said “people get tired” of hearing about the city hiring consultants. Ward 5...
Jackson Aldermen approve medical-marijuana zoning, move forward on sewer extensionZoning for medical-marijuana businesses in Jackson was approved Monday night by the city's Board of Aldermen, but only after two Jackson residents asked the aldermen that the buffer zone between those businesses and any existing schools, churches...
Most read 7/15/19Business Notebook: Coming to Cape: Custom cutlery, flavorful food, health-care hackingAside from Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus, there hasn't been a great deal of development along Morgan Oak Street in the past decade or so. Once a heavily-traveled avenue that led to the old Mississippi River bridge, Morgan Oak...
Waterlogged East Cape bracing for remnants of Tropical Depression BarryThe remnants of Tropical Depression Barry will bring heavy rain to parts of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois from Monday morning through Tuesday evening, according to a Sunday afternoon alert from the National Weather Service. The alert...
Rick Horton: ‘Our effort is not only just about success’After a video of baseball days gone by, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Horton gave a talk reinforcing the idea everyone has a “purpose and destiny” during the sixth annual Semoball Awards on Saturday at the River Campus. Horton, who is...
Telescopes, fishing poles and more: Library loans out much more than booksLending fishing poles with full tackle boxes, telescopes — and soon binoculars — are part of Riverside Regional Library’s initiative to welcome new faces who may not be aware there is more to discover beyond the walls of its six branches. Jackson...
Jackson Board of Aldermen agenda 7/15/19Public hearing n Hearing to consider amendments to Chapter 65 of the Code of Ordinances, regarding the addition of medical marijuana dispensing, manufacturing, cultivation and testing facilities as uses in specified zoning districts and establishing...
Photo Gallery 7/14/19East Cape prepping for tropical depression rainsThe remnants of Tropical Depression Barry will bring heavy rain to parts of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois from Monday morning through Tuesday evening, according to a Sunday afternoon alert from the National Weather Service. The alert said...
MoDOT changes course on center junction closureMissouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) engineers have shifted gears and now are looking to keep traffic flowing on U.S. 61 during construction of an Interstate 55 interchange between Cape Girardeau and Jackson. MoDOT officials, including...
Saint Francis to forbid physicians from medical marijuana certification; SoutheastHEALTH 'exploring' subjectCiting a federal prohibition against marijuana, Saint Francis Healthcare System says it will not allow its affiliated physicians to become certified to prescribe medical cannabis. Meanwhile, SoutheastHEALTH is exploring the issue as health care...
Deeper dive: Cape council, committee to hire second consultant for aquatic center projectThe Cape Girardeau City Council looks to hire another consultant Monday to help plan for a new, indoor aquatic center even as an advisory committee offers up an expansive list of what could be included in the project. City staff has recommended...
Most read 7/13/19The big debate over whether to build a floodwallCape Girardeau has had a love-hate relationship with the floodwall since it was built. The wall has protected the downtown business district from numerous floods, but the hulking structure has also cut off the town from the scenery of the...
Oran celebrates 150th with two-day celebrationOran, Missouri, turns 150 years old July 16. To commemorate, the town is hosting a two-day celebration with food, games, tours and a full entertainment lineup at Tilles Memorial City Park July 19 and 20. To kick things off, a non-denominational...
Cape Council rewards city manager with 'reasonable' pay raisenote: with fact box showing Meyer's salary to jackson city administrator and county commissioners Cape Girardeau city manager Scott Meyer was rewarded with a $3,155 pay raise for the new fiscal year that began July 1, which one councilman called...
FEMA awards funds to county for food, shelter after floodingA grant amounting to just more than $27,000 has been awarded to Cape Girardeau County by the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency to supplement emergency food and shelter programs in the county. Announcement of the...
County agrees to pay half with Jackson on dispatch upgradesThe Cape Girardeau County Commission agreed Thursday to fund half of the equipment expenses for a combined 911 emergency dispatch center with the city of Jackson, contingent on whether the Jackson Board of Aldermen agrees to pay the other half....