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Most inmates in Honduras fire were not convicted
High death toll ranks as worst in a century
COMAYAGUA, Honduras— The prisoners whose scorched bodies were carried out Thursday morning from a charred Honduran prison had been locked inside a crowded penitentiary, where most inmates had never been charged with a crime, according to a government report obtained by the Associated Press.
The report, which was sent to the United Nations this month, said 57 percent of some 800 inmates of the Comayagua farm prison north of the Central American country’s capital were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members.
A fire that witnesses said was started by an inmate swept through the prison Tuesday night, burning and suffocating screaming men in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for keys. The death toll stood at 355 Thursday afternoon, according to attorney general’s spokesman Melvin Duarte, making it the world’s deadliest prison fire in a century.
Honduran authorities said they are still investigating other possible causes based on prisoner accounts, including that the fire 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,” Mr. Duarte said.
Survivors told horrific tales of climbing walls to break the sheet metal roofing and escape, only to see prisoners in other cell blocks being burned alive. Inmates were found stuck to the roofing, their bodies fused to the metal.
From the time firefighters received a call about 11 p.m. local time, the rescue was marred by human error and conditions that made the prison a prime site for catastrophe.
According to the report, about 800 inmates were crowded into a facility built for 500 with only 51 guards by day and just 12 at night.
On the night of the fire, only six guards were on duty, four of them in towers overlooking the prison and two in the facility itself, said Fidel Tejeda, a guard at the prison for 14 years. One of those guards held all the keys to the prison doors, he said.
Mr. Tejeda said he was in one of the towers and fired two shots as a warning to the other guards when he first saw flames about 10:50 p.m.
The Comayagua fire chief has said his men were there in 10 minutes but were kept outside the gates by guards who feared the fire was cover for a prison break.
Honduran prisons have long been sites of human rights violations, according to the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and human rights organizations.
Nationwide, more than half of the 11,000 inmates in the country’s 24 prisons are awaiting trial.
Every prison is crammed with more people than it was built for, and there’s rarely enough food. Guards beat and torture prisoners, and gangs control the facilities, taking advantage of staffing ratios that on any given day amount to one guard for every 65 prisoners.
By Brahma Chellaney
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