(Updates with U.S. investigation in sixth paragraph)
Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Honduras’s crackdown on violent gangs has led to a surge of inmates in poorly controlled and dilapidated jails, a policy that may have caused the world’s worst prison fire in a century, human rights groups said.
At least 350 inmates died yesterday after a fire swept through a penitentiary in Comayagua, 55 miles (88 kilometers) north of the capital, the Security Ministry said yesterday. Of the 800 prisoners in the prison, more than half were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members, the Associated Press reported today, citing an internal Honduran government document.
“This is an issue that’s been neglected for decades,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, America’s director for Washington-based Human Rights Watch, said today in a phone interview. “People want to lock up gangs and forget about them.”
Jails throughout Latin America face similar predicaments, with prisoners being forced into cramped cells with little policing, Vivanco said. Almost 130 gangs operate in Honduras, fueling a murder rate that has doubled since 2005 to become among the world’s highest, according to the United Nations. The Central American nation has a homicide rate of 89 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 18 for Mexico, the UN said in an October report.
In a national address yesterday, President Porfirio Lobo said he fired the prison director pending a full investigation.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives plans to send a team to investigate the fire at the request of the Honduras government, according to an e-mailed statement from the agency today.
A 2003 law that criminalizes people for association with gangs, including tattoos and suspicion of drug use, has caused excessive arrests in Honduras, said Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor at American University.
Yesterday’s fire was at least the third in Honduras in the past decade. In May 2004, more than 100 inmates were killed in a blaze at a prison in San Pedro Sula, while as many as 86 died the year earlier in a jail in La Ceiba.
Guards failed to let prisoners out of their cells during yesterday’s fire and may have fired off their guns in an attempt to push back what they thought was a prison riot, according to the Honduran human rights group, Cofadeh.
“Honduras is in a state of national emergency in human rights,” Cofadeh’s director, Berta Oliva, said in a phone interview today from Tegucigalpa. “Here respect for life has been lost and things are turning into chaos.”
Police carried out body bags from the prison today as survivors recounted how they ripped through tin ceilings to escape the blaze.
“I was in bed when they shouted fire, then I heard screaming and smelled burning flesh,” Jose Enrique Guevara told La Prensa newspaper today while being treated in a hospital.
--With assistance by Blake Schmidt in Bogota. Editors: Philip Sanders, Robert Jameson
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