On 14th February a fire swept through a Honduras prison, killing 359 of the 858 inmates it housed. After being initially being blamed on an aggravated inmate, the finger of blame has now turned towards the authorities. “The preliminary cause we have is an accident; the ideas of some kind of criminal intent, as well as a short circuit, have been ruled out,” said Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla.
While official investigations continue to search for the exact cause of the fire, the reason that 359 prisoners died comes as an inevitable consequence of intolerable prison conditions. In cells designed for no more than 500 prisoners, there were over 850 inmates at the time of the fire. This is commonplace in a country with the world’s highest murder rate, where all 24 prisons are overcrowded, and 107 people prisoners were left dead in the San Pedro Sula prison fire of 2004.
Since the fire of 2004, steps have been made towards reforming Honduras’ criminal justice system. The overflow of Mexico’s drug trafficking onto Honduras’ streets has led to an area engulfed by gang warfare. In order to combat this, authorities applied a zero tolerance policy to anyone associated with a gang. Though this appears to be a positive step, the result of the policy has led to the unjust imprisonment of many innocent civilians. Those who have gang tattoos, yet who have not been associated with criminal activity, can be locked up without conviction. In fact, in the Comayagua prison, which hosted the fire, 461 of the inmates – over half – had yet to be convicted. The innocent until proven guilty were stuck in a political limbo that rapidly turned into hellish fire.
International assistance has worked in conjunction with the Honduras government in an attempt to fight the problems. The election of President Porfirio Lobo in 2009 was marked by the US implementing a series of counter-narcotics initiatives. While these initiatives may be a good short term solution, the lingering unemployment rates indicate that the long term health of Honduras requires more radical, revolutionary reforms. The overcrowding of the prisons will only be reduced by the increase of employment and education opportunities and this can only be made possible if the wealth of Honduras is spread more evenly amongst all members of society. Without opportunity to change and develop, the civilians of Honduras see crime as their only option for survival.
The prisoners of Comayagua prison were not given the opportunity to escape the fate of the condemned. As the fires blazed, inmates were left trapped, with guards reported to have fled the scene, carrying with them the cell keys. The inmates were robbed of their humanity, seen as criminals rather than people. Fire-fighters were prevented from entering the prison as the captivity of the inmates had to be ensured. Jaime Silva, the Comayagua fire chief, said in an interview, “They have rules, and they were insistent that we follow them”.
In a telling development, the only person to come out of this fiasco positively was a prisoner. Marco Antonio Bonilla has been pardoned from his murder sentence for putting his life in extreme danger to release the prisoners that the guards had left for dead. The humanity of the man has been recognised; now only through effective and radical reforms can the other prisoners have their humanity recognised and justice be restored.