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Honduras Prison Fire: Most In Comayagua Jail Had Not Been Convicted

Inmates bodies are loaded in a trailer truck at the National Prison in Comayagua, north of Tegucigalpa.
Jose Cabezas
AFP/Getty Images
Inmates bodies are loaded in a trailer truck at the National Prison in Comayagua, north of Tegucigalpa.

According to an internal government report sent to the United Nations and seen by the Associated Press, more than half the prisoners at the Comayagua jail in Honduras had not been convicted.

A late night fire on Tuesday, killed at least 356 people and left the country in mourning and the government grappling with a prison system that has long been criticized for its deplorable conditions.

The Guardian reports that Comayagua had about 800 inmates in a facility that was built for 500. Fifty-one guards watched the prison by day and 12 by night, which is when the fire happened. The Guardian adds:

"The prison had no medical or mental healthcare and the budget allowed less than $1 per day per prisoner for food. Prisoners can be imprisoned under the strict Honduran anti-gang laws simply for having a tattoo, the report said. The UN condemns this as a violation of international law.

"The Honduran national prison system director, Danilo Orellana, declined to comment on the supervision or the crowded conditions. The president, Porfirio Lobo, has suspended Orellana and other top prison officials."

The Los Angeles Times reports that human rights groups are calling on the Honduran government to reform its prison system.

"This isn't news to the Honduran government. The tragedy that happened last night could have been avoided," Vicki Gass, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, told the Times. "They've been told that they need to increase resources into the prison system and carry out prison reforms."

As night fell, yesterday, some family members still stood outside the prison fence, waiting for news about their loved ones. The BBC reported a sense of "frustration and resentment at the authorities who the families accuse of holding back information."

Reuters reports that families looked on as authorities pulled bodies out of the prison.

"The corpses are charred and some of them are stuck on top of each other," Johnny Ordenez, a Honduran soldier helping to recover bodies, told Reuters. "You have to peel them apart like an orange."

As we reported yesterday, authorities said many prisoners suffocated or burned to death in the cells, because rescuers could not find keys to free them.

Reuters says reporters were allowed into the maze-like compound last night. The wire service reports on the scene:

"By the time the media were allowed in, there was still evidence of those who did not escape the gutted complex, where the smell of charred flesh hung heavily in the air.

"One scorched cadaver lay face down on the floor, both legs pulled up close to the fetal position, with its arm outstretched into the corner of the cell. Two police and a soldier arrived to drag it away, to place it in the heap of bodies. ...

Loaded up onto trailers, the dead were sent to a morgue in Tegucigalpa, where relatives waited expectantly.

"'I'm here for my son's body, I must bury him, my wife and the rest of my family are waiting for me,' said Octavo Aguilera, a 59-year-old agricultural worker. 'I'm not leaving here without him.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.