A man injured in a prison fire is carried by medical personnel in Comayagua, Honduras, Feb. 15. A massive fire swept through the overcrowded prison in Honduras, killing hundreds, including many trapped inside their cells, officials said. CNS photo/Strin ger via Reuters

Chaplain: Honduran prison, site of fire that killed 300, had triple number of inmates

By  David Agren, Catholic News Service
  • February 16, 2012

MEXICO CITY - The prison in Comayagua, Honduras -- scene of a fire that killed more than 300 inmates -- was holding more than three times the population it was designed to house, said the prison chaplain, Father Reinaldo Moncada.

Father Moncada told Catholic News Service Feb. 15 that conditions in the prison were "inhumane" but said, unlike some other fires, it was not related to fights between rival criminal gangs inside the prison.

Local media reported Honduran officials said the fire was possibly caused by a short circuit or a prisoner lighting a mattress on fire. The blaze began late Feb. 14 and took more than an hour to get under control.

More than 850 prisoners were inside the prison when the fire began. Prisoners who did make it out reported hearing trapped inmates being burned to death. A spokesman for the local firefighters spoke of being unable to rescue prisoners because his workers could not locate guards with keys to the cells.

Outside the prison, police clashed with Hondurans who tried to enter to rescue family members.

Prisons in Honduras, like much of Latin America, are beset by overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions and populated by a large number of inmates who are awaiting or involved in trials and are not separated from those who have been convicted of crimes.

A woman shields herself as she walks near police officers who have taken cover after family members tried to enter a prison in Comayagua, Honduras, Feb. 15. A massive fire swept through the overcrowded prison in Honduras, killing hundreds, including many trapped inside their cells, officials said.

A woman shields herself as she walks near police officers who have taken cover after family members tried to enter a prison in Comayagua, Honduras, Feb. 15. A massive fire swept through the overcrowded prison in Honduras, killing hundreds, including many trapped inside their cells, officials said.

CNS photo/Stringer via Reuters

"It's a total abandonment of human rights" in prisons, said Alba Mejia, who works on torture cases for a Honduran nongovernmental organization.

The tragedy in Comayagua was the latest in a series of difficulties for Honduras since a June 2009 coup, in which then-President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and flown by the military to Costa Rica, plunging the country into economic and political turmoil.

Juan Sheenan, country director for Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, said the security situation in Honduras has deteriorated since the coup. Making matters worse, drug cartels have moved into Honduras, using the country as a base for moving narcotics between South America and the United States.

"It's getting tough," Sheenan told CNS. "More and more drugs are moving through Honduras ... there's increased gang activity."

He said Catholic Relief Services has been unable to work in some rural regions because of insecurity. The Mexican group Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice recently ranked San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the world's most violent city, with a murder rate of 158 per 100,000 residents.

Sheenan says the violence and poverty of the past three years has prompted many young Hondurans to leave, heading north toward the United States, even though Mexico is considered dangerous due to criminal gangs kidnapping migrants for ransom and forcing some to join drug cartels.

Migrant shelter operators in Mexico report the overwhelming majority of their guests are originally from Honduras.

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