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  February 24, 2012

Hundreds Killed in Honduras Jail Fire Shows Post-Coup Impunity

Guards fired at prisoners trying to escape, part of a militarization of security that does not hold police, soldiers or generals accountable for crimes and human rights violations
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VOICEOVER: In this video shot outside of the Comayagua penal farm in Honduras, the audible screams of trapped and burning inmates are interrupted by the sounds of the guards’ guns, which were turned on prisoners attempting to escape the blaze to save their lives. There have now been at least 359 confirmed deaths in what has become the worst prison fire in a century, with reports and testimonies from prisoners saying that the guards locked inmates into the facility and allowed the raging fires to burn for more than half an hour before letting firemen and rescuers inside.

COMAYAGUA PRISON FIRE SURVIVOR: Ellos encontraban en la bartolina y en vez de dejarnos salir nos querian detener para que no salieramos.

Translation: They [the guards] were gathered at the gate and instead of letting us out they kept us locked in so that we couldn’t leave.

VOICEOVER: When family members gathered at the jail to demand information on the fate of their relatives, they were shot at and teargassed by the military. Now roughly a week on, more questions have arisen regarding not just the actual causes of the fire, which it is believed was started by an inmate burning a mattress, but more importantly how it is that such an incident could be allowed to occur where prisoners are locked in and shot at, and what should be done about it. Many point to severe overcrowding in the country’s jails and a failing judiciary system as root causes: the Comayagua jail was filled to more than double its maximum capacity and most of the inmates had not yet been proven guilty and were awaiting trial. Others say the real culprits of what some are calling a massacre are the militarization of Honduran police and society coupled with a pervasive impunity and the criminalization of poverty in one of the hemisphere’s poorest and most violent countries. Adrienne Pine is an assistant professor of anthropology at American University who has been researching violence in Honduras for 15 years. She says that Honduras’s most recent prison fire cannot be understood outside of the context of the 2009 coup that ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya and resulted in the current de facto regime of President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo.

ADRIENNE PINE, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Looking at this prison fire in order to understand it we need to look at the context of the coup without the coup we wouldn’t have Honduras being the most dangerous country in the world as has been unfortunately what it’s been most cited for in the media in recent months, the UN found that there are 82 homicides per 100,000 residents which is higher than countries that are officially at war, and that directly stems from the atmosphere of impunity which goes from top to bottom, there’s impunity for the crimes that were committed during the coup, the General responsible himself for carrying out the coup, Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, is now the head of the national telecommunications corporation and what we see is that there has been no justice and what does this tell people it tells people at all levels that you can carry out crimes, in particular crimes against people who are scapegoated for the problems that are caused by people in power, and there will be no counting for them.

VOICEOVER: While the Honduran oligarchy’s grip hold on economic and political power in the country is not a new phenomenon, the 2009 coup and further deterioration of democracy greatly expanded their ability to impose sweeping neoliberal programs and push for increased militarization in spite of popular resentment towards many of their policies. The Comayagua prison fire is not the country’s first such incident: in 2003 and 2004 there were prison fires in Honduras that claimed 69 and 104 victims respectively. Oscar Estrada is a Honduran filmmaker who traced the origins and aftermath of the 2003 prison massacre in his documentary “El Porvenir.”

OSCAR ESTRADA, HONDURAN FILMMAKER: We could say that it’s about a cleaning of the marginalized population in Honduras and I’m afraid this is happening just because there is no authority to actually punish these kind of crimes…the 2 main incidents in the jails in 2003 and 2004 it is the same people who were behind the coup and the same people who is now power, Pepe Lobo was President of the Congress at the time that it happened in San Pedro Sula, and now he’s president of Honduras.

VOICEOVER: President Lobo was quick to respond to the Comayagua incident, professing his solidarity with the families of the victims and promising a full inquiry.

PORFIRIO “PEPE” LOBO, DE FACTO PRESIDENT, HONDURAS: En este momento estamos reunidos con el consejo de defensa y seguridad nacional para tomar las acciones urgentes para atender esta tragedia que nos enluta a todos los hondureños…(corta)… Una investigación independiente con figuras de mucha autoridad moral y con el acompañamiento y la observación internacional, que en el marco de lo que mandan las leyes nacionales garantice la certeza y confiabilidad de los resultados y conclusiones. Esto garantiza un proceso de total transparencia.

Translation: Right now we are meeting with the National Security and Defense Council to take urgent actions in order to deal with this tragedy that has left all Hondurans in mourning…[There will be] an independent investigation, with figures of great moral authority and with international accompaniment and observation, that is performed within the framework of the national laws to ensure the certainty and reliability of the results and conclusions, this will ensure a process of total transparency.

VOICEOVER: Honduran sociologist and human rights advocate Sergio Bahr recently accepted a position with the Honduran Ministry of Human Rights and Justice, where he is leading a project that is seeking to establish a national human rights plan of action for the country. He says that while civil society groups have been pushing for prison reforms in Honduras for years, the country’s leaders have failed to make any significant changes, instead calling for increased militarization of the national police to combat what the government says is a security crisis fueled by gang violence.

SERGIO BAHR, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC POLICY AND NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PLAN OF ACTION: We need to demilitarize the whole security concept in our country, the whole idea of how security should work, how police should work, how the military should work, how the penal system should work. We can’t have a police that is more military than police. One of… research are investigation capacities for our police force are almost nil, security, it’s not a shift by having people with guns walking the streets, in terms of crime we should have a police force that is able to investigate crimes with scientific means that is able to also pursue high collar crime for example there are no collection of gangs in our country able to steal as much as 1 corrupt banker or politician is able to in one year and they are never pursued or tried, they are walking the streets or flying over them.

VOICEOVER: Another recurring response from the state has been to push for the construction of newer modern private detention facilities to house the swelling numbers of inmates swept up in the criminal justice system in the wake of military police crackdowns in the often marginalized neighborhoods where gangs operate. The morning following the Comayagua prison fire, the Israeli ambassador to Honduras released a statement reiterating calls from just 2 weeks before the incident that Israel was prepared to help in the construction of a new super max prison.

ADRIENNE PINE, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: One of the first things that happened after this fire was that the ambassador from Israel gave a statement saying that if it were Israeli prisons, then this wouldn’t have happened which of course is part of a push to privatize prison administration in Honduras which is something we heard after the 2003 and 2004 fires as well. Now I think it’s important to point out that that logic is inherently flawed because this fire did not happen as a result of faulty prison constructions this fire did not happen even as a result of overcrowding this fire happened because there is no due process because there is a broken judicial system in Honduras and because there is no democracy in Honduras and no maximum security prison is going to solve that, this is an opportunity for Israel and other private security companies from different countries even Honduras to make a lot of profit but it’s not a way to save lives it’s not a way to bring justice and it’s certainly not a way to bring democracy to Honduras.

VOICEOVER: President Obama praised Pepe Lobo in a meeting between the two in October, saying that “because of the strong commitment to democracy and leadership by President Lobo, what we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope.” On Monday, February 20th, only 32 of the 359 bodies had been identified, causing a gathering of angry relatives to storm the local morgue in an attempt to identify and collect their loved ones’ remains before they were teargassed again by police. There are fears among the victims’ families that most of the bodies are burned beyond recognition, and that nobody will be held accountable for their horrific deaths. SIGNOUT.


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