Tuesday night, February 14, at least 357 prisoners died in a fire at La Granja penitentiary in Comayagua, Honduras, in one of the worst prison fires in the past century. The fire, though, is only the latest deadly outcome of the larger politically driven firestorm that is Honduras today. The Comayagua fire must be understood in the context of the near-total breakdown of the Honduran state since the June 28, 2009, military coup that overthrew democratically elected President José Manuel Zelaya.
Honduran authorities were quick to insist that the dead were hardened criminals and blame the fire on a crazy inmate who set his own mattress on fire. But human rights advocates, prison experts, and the opposition media have been quick to underscore that the biggest criminals in this story are the police and the Honduran state.
Daniel Orellana, director of prisons until he was suspended in the fire’s aftermath, was the mastermind managing the Honduras police during and after the military coup, according to the July 2011 report of the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation convened by the coup government of President Porfirio Lobo. Héctor Ivan Mejía, currently the police spokesperson reporting to the public about the Comayagua fire, was previously fired as chief of police of the nation’s second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, in part because he issued the notorious order to tear gas a peaceful opposition demonstration on September 15, 2010, including a high school marching band.
When the fire broke out just before 11 pm, the prisoners were locked into spectacularly overcrowded cells, in some cases sixty to a room. Their guards, ordinary police, in many cases didn’t have keys or refused to use them and fled, abandoning the screaming prisoners. Rubén García, a survivor, has testified that guards shot at the prisoners before fleeing. Outside, police held back firefighters for thirty minutes before allowing them to enter.
Although some of the inmates were, indeed, gang members and drug traffickers, as the media has reported, the Comayagua penitentiary is a second-tier prison, housing ordinary criminals from the area; the most dangerous are housed in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Many of them had never been convicted and were awaiting court dates that would never arrive, in a country widely acknowledged to have no functioning judicial system.
When the fire broke out, their family members rushed to the prison, only to be met by bullets and tear gas. All the following day the Jesuits’ opposition radio station, Radio Progreso, read out the names of the dead, and the incantation of their classic Honduran names underscored the magnitude of the blow to the Honduran people.
This is the country’s third major prison fire in recent years. In 2003, police deliberately set a fire killing 69 gang members in El Porvenir. In 2004, 104 inmates died in San Pedro Sula, unable to escape. In both cases the government called for dramatic reform; yet conditions worsened.