Published February 17, 2012
Honduras came under pressure on Friday to overhaul its broken prison system and allow an independent inquiry into a jailhouse blaze that killed more than 350 inmates, many burnt alive in their cells.
The blaze, the third major prison fire in Honduras in the last decade, has ramped up scrutiny of the Central American nation's corrupt and inefficient judicial system. Almost half the inmates in its overcrowded jails have not been convicted and are awaiting trial, according to data from the Supreme Court of Honduras.
The United Nations said an investigation should look at whether conditions in the prison in Comayagua, about 75 km (47 miles) north of the capital Tegucigalpa, contributed to the mass fatalities in Tuesday night's inferno.
At the jail, guards used cell phones to take pictures of surviving inmates to show them to relatives who turned up asking to see their loved ones. But some were still left without answers.
"This is total chaos. Nobody knows anything," said Alba Arias, 52, who came looking for her nephew, Elmer Mejia, who she said had been awaiting trial for two years without being charged.
"They tell me that he is not inside, and he's not in the morgue. I don't know where he is," she said.
Many victims were so badly burned their bodies were fused together in the fire, which destroyed about a third of the prison complex. Honduran authorities said DNA and dental records would be needed to identify some remains.
Elimara Lavaire, a nurse with Honduras' Center for Prevention and Treatment of Torture Victims and Families, said prison reform in the nation was long overdue.
"Whatever the story is, the state is responsible," she said. "If it was because of the keys, who had the keys? If it was a fight, who was responsible for stopping it?"
The chief of police intelligence said the fire broke out during a fight between two inmates over a mattress, but other sources provided different explanations for the blaze, including a botched jailbreak and an electrical malfunction.
One of the prison guards told Reuters that keys to the cells had been locked in a safe for which special permission was needed.
Survivor Carlos Rapalo, 50, who has served 17 years of a 25 year sentence for murder, said many prisoners were saved by a fellow inmate who picked up the keys that a guard had dropped on the ground, and opened up the cells one by one.
The prisoner, a nurse by trade, was sleeping in the medical station on Tuesday night and not in his cell.
"If it was not for him, there would have been many more deaths," said Rapalo.
In Tegucigalpa, officials moved about 1,000 friends and relatives of victims from tents outside the morgue to a nearby camp, where many face a lengthy wait for the release of bodies.
Officials had moved some bodies from the morgue to the medical faculty at the Honduras National Autonomous University, where there were another 16 autopsy tables.