Honduras prisons are overcrowded tinderboxes
Lucy Pagoada of Honduran Resistance: 'The same people behind the coup are behind this tragedy'
By Heather Cottin
A fire that began late in the evening on Feb. 14 burned 382 prisoners to death at the Comayagua Prison Farm in Honduras. Some clutched the bars of their cells while others drowned in the water tanks in an attempt to escape the flames. According to Berta Oliva of the prisoner relative organization Cofadeh (Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras), some were shot to death before they burned. (resistenciahonduras.net)
The worst prison fire in history burned out of control for 40 minutes before the fire department came. "[The guards] would not open the gates for the fire fighters," accroding to Honduras Weekly (Feb. 15) The only response of the burn treatment facility at the U.S. Palmerola Air Force Base nearby was to send a truck for the corpses.
Rosendo Sánchez, serving a 10-year sentence, awoke as the blaze started. He escaped his cell block and says he saw guards firing at other inmates trying to get out. Guards fired at inmates who were trying to escape through the ceiling.
Leonel Casco of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights said a prison official, instead of opening the gates, "threw down the keys and ran away." One prisoner, Rubén García, said, “When the fire started we called out to the people with the keys, but they didn't want to open [our cells]. They killed them! They yelled, ‘Die you dogs, it's good that you die!’” (Honduras Weekly, Feb. 15)
Most prisoners in Comayagua had been awaiting trial for more than two years — that is, during the entire period since a coup in June 2009 overthrew the elected president. Some were imprisoned for having stolen a chicken.
The prison at Comayagua was built in the 1940s. According to the prison chaplain it was built for 250 prisoners. The Honduran government has claimed its capacity was 400. At the time of the fire, it housed 852 inmates. The cells were overcrowded and unsanitary. CNN reported that "the bunks are sometimes five, six, seven tiers high, with the lowest person ... sleeping underneath the bunk on the bottom." (Feb. 15)
Honduran jails and prisons provide little to inmates, who must rely on friends and relatives for food. Some prisoners cook in their cells with hotplates, toaster ovens or small microwaves. Comayagua was a decaying facility with water damage in the walls and ceilings, and a decrepit electrical system. Rats infested the prison.
Prisons ‘overcrowded tinderboxes’
The National Front of People’s Resistance (FNRP) says Honduran prisons are overcrowded tinderboxes, with 24 prisons holding 13,000 inmates in a space meant to house 8,000; 107 inmates had died in a fire at San Pedro Sula Prison in 2004, and 69 had burned to death at the House of El Porvenir in 2003. There have been warnings from government ministers to “create new centers that met safety requirements” but it all “remained on paper.”
Officials spread lies and disinformation immediately after the fire. The current governor of the Department of Comayagua, who had been a secretary at the prison before the 2009 coup, claimed that a prisoner started the fire. Reports by surviving inmates contradict her.
The falsehood, however, was carried by most of the world’s corporate media, blaming the victims for their own deaths.
Interview with Lucy Pagoada
Lucy Pagoada, an official Honduran Resistance member residing in the U.S., spoke to Workers World on Feb. 15. “There was a deliberate attempt to keep information from the people, to interpret it from the point of view of the government,” Pagoda said. “The transmission from the people’s radio station, Radio Globo, was very weak. There appeared to be a deliberate attempt to keep their reporters off the air. But the media, Honduran National Radio and Radio America — belonging to the same people who perpetrated the 2009 coup — said people should not be alarmed, that the situation was under control.
“When Radio Globo, the progressive radio station, arrived to interview those waiting outside the prison for word about their brothers or sons or husbands or fathers, the crowd chanted, ‘Justice, justice, justice!’ This tragedy shows that in Honduras there is no justice.
“There is complete social anarchy in Honduras,” she continued. “The indifference, corruption and disrespect for human life are the direct result of the 2009 coup that brought the agents of the ruling class in to control the people of Honduras. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, 82 per 1,000, as opposed to the world average of nine per 1,000. There is never any investigation of these murders. Everything is ignored. There is complete impunity.
“The government of Honduras, formed out of ‘golpista’ [coup plotters’] electoral machinations, has deliberately created a condition of nongovernance. The purpose of this nongovernance is to stop the political process from taking place. The people who perpetrated the coup against [President Manuel] Zelaya in 2009 intend to create a chaotic situation to justify U.S. intervention or military control over the country,” Pagoada said.
“These people are capable of committing any kind of crime to stay in power. There are constant death threats on the lives of President Zelaya and his wife, presidential candidate Xiomara Castro Zelaya, who is LibRe’s candidate for president in 2013. [LibRe is the short name for the Freedom and Refoundation Party.]
“They are using this tragedy to justify having the Honduran army in control of Honduras. The same people behind the coup are behind this tragedy, and they want Honduras in a state of chaos,” Pagoada said.