Little change in Honduras prison where 362 died

Little change in Honduras prison where 362 died
# 13 February 2013 23:18 (UTC +04:00)

Baku-APA. On the 14th day of each month, Jesus Garcia joins other relatives to hoist a cardboard coffin and carry it in a macabre procession down a road to the prison where two cousins died with 360 other inmates in the worst prison fire in at least a century, APA reports quoting Associated Press.

It's their way to demand justice in the deaths of Antonio and Franklin Garcia, who were among many left locked in their cells as fire raced through the wooden barracks, and the handful of guards on duty ran for their lives.

"We go to the jail, in a symbolic procession with a casket, to ask for justice, but we get no answers," Garcia said. "We go to the minister of human rights and she passes it along to the president and he passes it along to the first lady, but then nothing gets done."

A year after the fire in Comayagua, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Tegucigalpa, the investigation remains open and prosecutors have filed no charges. The burned cells and electrical system are still being repaired.

While the government created a new agency told to replace the police in the prisons with specially trained guards, social workers and doctors, the three-person commission that started working last week was given no budget and has no office, according to its director, Agusto Avila.

Even the inmate who was the hero of the fire, finding keys and freeing hundreds of men, was never pardoned as President Porfirio Lobo had promised. Honduran law forbids commuting a murder sentence, so Marco Antonio Bonilla is still serving his time, working in the prison infirmary, where he was awakened that night by the screams of inmates as they were devoured by flames.

"There was no mechanism to extinguish fires, no evacuation plan. The firefighters were not allowed to get there quickly and the guards, instead of acting appropriately, only fired shots in the air, supposedly because that is the established procedure in case of escapes," said government human rights prosecutor German Enamorado, who led the investigation for the Attorney General's Office.

Garcia is in a position to know it can happen again. Besides being a relative of the dead, he is the warden of the Juticalpa prison northeast of the capital in rural Olancho state. A fire today in the Juticalpa facility of 500 inmates could cause similar devastation because it doesn't have running water to fight a blaze, despite the fact it is one of the country's modern facilities, built in 2007.

Human rights monitors have long criticized Honduras' prison system. Most of the 11,000 inmates in the country's 24 prisons have not yet been found guilty. More than half of the 800 prisoners in Comayagua at the time of the fire were still awaiting trial, according to a Honduran government report sent to the United Nations a year ago.

The Office of Human Rights' investigation into the disaster found "no evidence of criminality in the origin of the fire," Enamorado said.

It began with "a flame in one of the cells that spread in a few minutes," Enamorado said, referring to a report by the Office of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose agents investigated the cause. "But there was negligence on the part of authorities in charge of prison security, whose actions could have avoided a death toll of this magnitude."

Despite that finding, the Attorney General's Office is keeping the case open for lack of evidence, he said, awaiting details including autopsy results, the exact number of inmates in the facility that day, whether there was an evacuation plan and the material of the mattresses that burned.

Three of the 362 victims still have yet to be identified; one as never claimed by relatives and two were burned beyond recognition.

The Legal Forensics Department and the Attorney General's Office didn't respond to interview requests to explain the delay.

Relatives of those who died say the government is just trying to avoid blame. "There's a policy on the part of the attorney general to conduct investigations in an obstructive manner in cases of human rights violations with an objective to keep the responsibility from falling on the state," said Joaquin Mejia, attorney for the Committee of Relatives of the Victims of Comayagua.

And Honduras' permanent state of fiscal, political and judicial crisis leaves few resources for improving prisons.

The national budget allocated around $15 million to the prison system for 2013. About 85 percent goes to pay salaries for prison officials and guards, according to the Security Department.

Honduran prisons receive the rest of their funding from taxes that inmates pay from the work they do inside. At Comayagua, prisoners grew corn and beans and raised fish and chicken on the 36 acres of farmland surrounding the facility.

Dani Rodriguez, a police inspector, was named director of Comayagua prison on Feb. 15, a day after the fire. He has not been able to change much.

"The state transferred 180,000 lempiras ($9,000), and by selling some of the scrap metal after the fire we got 32,000 lempiras ($1,500), and the TV show they did for our benefit left us with a huge plastic check which they used for the photo, but we haven't received the money yet," Rodriguez said.

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