Inside Story Americas
Is law and order breaking down in Honduras?
We ask if the prison fire that left 350 inmates dead reveals the poor state of the country's prison and justice system.
Last Modified: 01 Mar 2012 10:13

More than 350 inmates were killed when an inferno tore through the Comayagua prison in Honduras last week.

"People are testifying now that they smelled gasoline outside and also that tanks of gas were brought in by the guards before the fire .…This was not an accident. This was a really horrific act of criminal negligence or a deliberate attack by the police against the Honduran people."

- Dana Frank, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine

Authorities were quick to blame the fire on a crazed inmate but have since backtracked, leaving many questions about the cause of the tragedy and the conduct of staff during it unanswered.

It is the country's third major deadly prison fire in a decade.

The anger of victims' relatives has been fuelled by the revelation that more than half of the inmates had never been either charged or convicted.

Analysts say the disaster not only points to the appalling state of the country's jails, but also lifts the lid on the complete breakdown of Honduran law and order.

It has exposed the steep rise in corruption and human rights abuses since the 2009 coup that deposed the democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya, the then Honduran president, and has led to calls for the US to end its assistance to police and military forces inside Honduras.

"This is a common phenomenon of judicial and police systems, overcrowded and poorly managed prisons, and basically very, very brutal and close to being centres of torture just by the living conditions in which the prisoners exist."

- Peter Hakim, the president emeritus at the Inter-American Dialogue

Weighing in on the matter, Robert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned: "These events reflect an alarming pattern of prison violence in the region, which is a direct consequence of, or aggravated by, a range of endemic problems including ... chronic prison overcrowding, the lack of access to basic services such as adequate floor space, potable water, food, health care, and lack of basic sanitary and hygienic standards."

So, what has gone wrong in Honduras? And who is to blame?

Joining presenter Lisa Fletcher on Inside Story Americas are guests: Peter Hakim, the president emeritus and a senior fellow of the Inter-American Dialogue; Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas programme director at Human Rights Watch; and Dana Frank, an expert on Honduran history at the University of California, and a contributing writer for The Nation magazine.

"The state has abandoned its responsibilities to afford internal protection within the prison system because politically-speaking, it is not very profitable to represent the interest of the prisoners."

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas programme director at Human Rights Watch

Prison problems:

Overcrowding was a major factor contributing to the high number of prison deaths in Honduras. The Comayagua National Penitentiary was intended to house 400 inmates but the prison's population at the time of the fire was 852. Honduran courts face a backlog, where most of the inmates have not even been convicted of a crime, which is a trend across the country's 24 prisons. The country's prison facilities have a total maximum capacity of 8,000 inmates, but currently hold 13,000 inmates, nearly half of whom await verdicts on their court cases.

During a visit by Porfirio Lobo, the Honduran president, to the US in October last year, Barack Obama, the US president, said:

"Two years ago, we saw a coup in Honduras that threatened to move the country away from democracy, and in part because of pressure from the international community, but also 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."

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