Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Honduran jail fire kills more than 100


A fire raged through a Honduran prison killing 103 inmates and injuring 25 others, amid allegations jail guards had refused to let young gang members out of their cells, authorities said.

Fifty-three of the victims belonged to the Mara Salvatrucha street gang. Under a law banning gang membership, some were jailed for wearing gang tattoos, a group that helps gang members said.

The blaze early Monday in the Central Prison of San Pedro Sula, some 240km north of Tegucigalpa was the second major fire tragedy to hit a Honduran prison in little more than a year.

Honduran President Ricardo Maduro broke off a European tour to return and handle the crisis.

First Vice President Vicente William convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to start up an investigation.

Deputy Security Minister Armando Calidonio said 102 inmates perished in the Central Prison fire and another died in hospital, where 25 people were being treated for burns.

Firefighters said a short circuit caused bedding to catch fire. Victims died from thick smoke and inadequate ventilation which hindered firefighters, fire commissioner Carlos Cordero said.

Honduran TV broadcast images of charred bodies strewn near the prison, which was destroyed.

One inmate claimed prisoners shouted in vain for help but that jailers refused to open the cells so they could flee the blaze.

"The police were saying, `leave them in there, leave them in there,' as we were yelling `let us out,'" inmate Pablo Cardona said.

"They wanted us to die," said Cardona, who identified himself as a member of one of Honduras' notorious drug gangs.

Coroners who had examined 30 bodies said there was not yet any evidence to support early reports that guards had shot the inmates.

Human-rights groups here have alleged that the government has quietly pursued a policy of executing gang members. Honduran officials have denied this.

San Pedro Sula prison director Elias Aceituno was suspended after the fire, but he told reporters the measure was to ensure an independent investigation.

"Later on, I'll return to my job," he added.

Auxiliary Bishop Romulo Emiliani of the San Pedro Sula Roman Catholic diocese called for an investigation into why the prisoners had not been released.

"If one of the gates had been opened an hour earlier, no one would have died," Emiliani said.

He called the loss of life "one of the worst tragedies ever to occur in our country's prisons.

"I'm upset because most of these were young men ... many of whom had hoped to turn over a new leaf and improve their lives, and who were hoping for a better future," he said.

Itsmania Pineda, who works with gang members, called the prison a "pressure cooker," filled with desperate gang members.

Security minister spokesman Leonel Sauceda said the prison, built for 1,700 inmates, held 2,227.

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