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Little change in Honduras prison where 362 died

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In this Jan. 24, 2013, inmates who survived the prison fire a year ago stand inside the new collective cell built for inmates at the prison in Comayagua, Honduras. A year after one of the century’s worst prison fires killed more than 350 people, the investigation remains open and prosecutors have filed no charges. The burned cells and electrical system are still being repaired. 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. AP/Alberto Arce

JUTICALPA, Honduras — 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.

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.

As in all Honduran prisons, Rodriguez supplements scant government funds with the taxes he collects from inmates, who run their own businesses from inside. With his inmate population down by half after the fire, so is his budget, about $1,000 for food and maintenance.

Garcia knows the difficulties from running the Juticalpa prison.

“We receive water for a couple of hours a day thanks to a neighbor who lets us connect to his tank, but the water is not always clean. Sometimes a fire truck will supply some water as a donation from the mayor’s office,” said Gonzalo de Jesus, the prison administrator who works with Garcia.

Roberto Urquia, who works in the Juticalpa prison infirmary, brings his own water and boils it to make is safe.

“About 25 percent of the inmates have chronic gastrointestinal problems,” he said.

On January 16, Honduras’ Congress approved building a new prison at Comayagua with $60 million borrowed from a local bank.

“They had the ability to do such business while the inmates have no water or medication,” said Odalis Najera, commissioner for the National Office to Prevent Torture, an organization created by the U.N. to monitor Honduran prisons. “The situation that each and every one of them is living is equivalent to torture.”


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