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.
Over 300 people have been killed by state security forces since President Lobo came to power in a November 2009 election boycotted by most of the opposition and almost all international observers. At least forty-three campesino activists have been killed by police, members of the military, and private security guards.
This past fall the country was further rocked by a massive scandal when authorities revealed that on October 22 police officers had allegedly killed the son of the university rector, Julietta Castellanos, and a friend of his, and then the culprits were allowed to go free. Throughout the fall former government officials and others came forward to denounce widespread involvement of the police in drug trafficking and assassinations, at the highest levels. The most prominent of the critics, former congressman and police commissioner Alfredo Landaverde, was himself assassinated on December 6.
Who, then, is to blame for the Comayagua maelstrom? Former police commissioner María Luisa Borjas, herself a target of ongoing death threats because she has criticized police corruption, charged the next morning that the fire was a “criminal act” by the Honduran government. Attorney Joaquin Mejía called it the “institutionalized violence of the state.”
They know that the Lobo administration is still riddled from top to bottom with coup perpetrators, drug traffickers and those responsible for the repression of the opposition. The danger, now, is that the Honduran police and military will take advantage of the prison fire to further justify a rapidly increasing militarization of Honduran society, as Oscar Estrada, who has studied the Honduran prison system, warns. Indeed, the government already passed a controversial law in November 2011 allowing the military to take over ordinary police functions.
This militarization is being fueled by the US State Department, which continues to throw its financial and diplomatic support behind the corrupt and illegitimate Lobo regime. Obama in his 2013 budget proposed to double the funding for Honduras, despite growing Congressional pressure to suspend all police and military aid to Honduras. US military funding has increased every year since the coup, and the United States is currently pouring $50 million into expanding its strategically important Soto Cano Air Force Base in Honduras, using the fight against drug trafficking as a pretext to expand both its military presence and its direct control of the Honduran police.
The Honduran human rights community and opposition are clear, though: they want the United States to cut the aid—“stop feeding the beast,” as the university rector has famously asked—and they want to clean up the state security forces themselves. They do not want the United States, whether itself or through its puppets, to take over their country further through an alleged cleanup operation in service to the very coup regime into which it continues to pour millions of dollars.