Tegucigalpa, Honduras The world’s worst prison fire in a century happened in a lockup like many in Honduras: a decrepit, suffocating place of overcrowded, dark cellblocks where many inmates were accused only of petty crimes.
Experts warn a similar disaster could happen again in Central America, where a decade of crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs and out-of-control street crime has left the region dotted with fire-prone prisons often crammed with more than twice the number of inmates they can safely handle.
“You have this tremendous public security crisis and the quick answer that prevailed for all of these years is ‘iron fist,’” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
“By ‘iron fist,’ you mean increasing penalties, making it more difficult for prisoners to get out of prison,” he said. Inmates languish for months, or even years, as their cases slowly move through backlogged judicial systems.
Honduras implemented laws in 2003 that doubled the maximum penalty for being a gang leader to 12 years incarceration. Officials also applied a loose definition of gang leadership, locking people up for having gang tattoos or other signs of apparent criminal affiliation.
That started a wave in Central America, where countries like El Salvador and Guatemala passed their own laws against “Mara” street gangs.
“When the anti-mara laws were approved, that caused a saturation of mara gang members in all of the prisons, it was no longer just common crime,” Inestroza said.
By 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras’ prison system had nearly 38 percent more prisoners than it was built for, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
Conditions were ripe for disaster Tuesday, when a fire set by an inmate raced through overcrowded Comayagua prison, burning and suffocating 356 screaming people in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for the only set of keys to the facility.
Only six guards were on duty, responsible for 852 prisoners. And the guard with the keys fled, leaving hundreds to burn in their cells.
“The conditions at all 25 prisons are really the same as they were in Comayagua,” said Renan Inestroza, a congressman with Honduras’ governing National Party. “There is tremendous overcrowding.”
“The guard personnel in all of the prisons aren’t trained in how to handle this type of emergency,” he said.