Officials said on Wednesday that over 300 inmates of a Honduras prison were killed when the building caught fire. The fire is one of the most tragic events to occur in Latin America and brings about more criticism of the poor conditions of prisons in the area.
Original reports suggested that 300 inmates died, according to Honduran government personnel, while the National Human Rights Commission claims that close to 356 people were killed. As of Wednesday night, forensic investigative teams removed 150 bodies from the building.
Screams from inmates during the fire woke up other inmates, who tried to escape by any means necessary to save their lives. The fire started late on Tuesday in a prison with minimum security in Comayagua, Honduras. The prison is 40 miles from Tegucigalpa. Authorities are still trying to figure out the cause of the fire.
Carlos Alfredo Garcia Zepeda was at his home 200 meters away and said he heard a series of blasts, much like a bomb.
“I didn’t pay much attention, because we have a lot of fireworks,” he said. “Then I heard them screaming. … I went outside and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
During the fire, gunshots were fired and the flames lasted for around an hour. Zepeda took video of what he saw and said that the cries for help ended not too long after he began videotaping the incident.
“It’s an outrage. It happened so quickly. I guess they couldn’t do anything anymore,” he said.
“This is a day of deep pain for Honduras,” Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said. Lobo also said that prison administrators would be suspended immediately along with the prison’s chain of command to the national level.
“We are going to review the conditions in all the penitentiary centers to see how we can improve the overcrowding conditions that exist in many of our prisons,” Lobo said.
The Honduran National Human Rights Commission has capacity for only 250 inmates but it was housing 852 at the time of the fire. Jose Turcios, a Comayagua Fire Department spokesperson said that five of the units within the prison were affected by the fire, which is more than half of the building.
“I understand the worry and demands of the people, but we have to abide by the law,” said Pompeyo Bonilla, the country’s minister of security. “We have the best intention to give answers to the families as soon as possible.”
This is the third fatal prison fire in the past couple of years. Back in 2003, 61 inmates were killed in a prison fire at La Ceiba. Back in 2004, there were 107 inmates killed in a prison fire at San Pedro Sula.
There are 24 prisons in Honduras and the United States State Department issued a report in April about the conditions in those prisons. The report said that prisoners “suffered from severe overcrowding, malnutrition, and lack of adequate sanitation.”
“Authorities did not provide adequate food or other basic necessities. The ready access of prisoners to weapons and other contraband, impunity for inmate attacks on nonviolent prisoners, inmate escapes, and inmate threats against prison officials and their families contributed to an unstable and dangerous penitentiary system environment,” the department said in its 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.