COMAYAGUA, Honduras (Reuters) - Survivors of a Honduran jailhouse fire that killed more than 350 inmates accused guards of leaving prisoners to die trapped inside their cells and shooting at others when they tried to escape.
As torched bodies were pulled out of the prison complex on Thursday, victims’ relatives, survivors and experts said massive overcrowding, guards’ negligence and a failed justice system were to blame for the disaster, which killed many inmates who had not even been convicted of a crime.
Unable to escape the inferno that tore through Comayagua National Penitentiary on Tuesday night, terrified prisoners died screaming to be let out of their cells.
Rosendo Sanchez, a convicted murderer serving a 10-year sentence, awoke as the blaze started. He escaped his cell block and says he saw guards firing at other inmates trying to get out.
“It was hell here, seeing your friends, people you have known well burn alive,” he said, noting that the fire brigade did not come into the prison for more than half an hour.
Honduras’ director of police intelligence, Elder Madrid, said the fire broke out in block six during a fight over a mattress between two inmates, one of whom set it on fire. All but four of more than 100 prisoners in the block died, he said.
But some victims’ relatives said the government had been grossly negligent or had even planned the blaze.
In another twist, an anonymous caller rang broadcaster HCH to claim guards set the fire after a foiled escape bid by inmates.
Some of the 852 prisoners at the overcrowded jail managed to force their way to safety through the tin roofs of the complex, a dark, maze-like structure with narrow open-air hallways lined with white and blue brick walls.
However, 359 of the prisoners never found their way out, according to the attorney general’s office.
More than half of the inmates had not been convicted and were still awaiting trial, a rate even worse than the national average of 45 percent, according to Supreme Court figures.
“Many were not convicted and have been here two or three years and they were not able to be released because the Honduran justice system is really slow,” said Claudio Saenz, a social worker who visits the prison.
Outside, Iris Molina pleaded desperately with a guard for news of her son Milton, a 28-year-old inmate who she had not heard of since the blaze.
“I just want information but I can’t get any,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks onto her pink blouse. “I was here yesterday with my daughter and everyone was angry. I‘m not angry, I just want to know what happened to my son.”
Condemnation of the prison authorities spread as far as the local fire brigade chief, who said they had stopped his crews from entering the burning prison for half an hour.
“These people in the prisons have their protocols, and while these are going on, they don’t let anybody in,” Jaime Omar Silva told the El Tiempo newspaper.
Throughout the night, groups of police and soldiers dragged out the charred remains of inmates in black body bags and hurled them onto a pile outside, where they landed with heavy thuds.
“The corpses are charred and some of them are stuck on top of each other,” said Johnny Ordenez, a soldier lugging the dead. “You have to peel them apart like an orange.”
Honduras is the most murderous country on the planet, ravaged by violent street gangs, rampant police corruption, dysfunctional courts and brutal drug cartels.
Inside the gutted prison complex, the smell of charred flesh hung heavily in the air on Wednesday night.
One scorched cadaver lay face down on the floor, both legs pulled up close to the fetal position, with its arm outstretched into the corner of the cell. Two police and a soldier arrived to drag it away, to place it in the heap of bodies.
Around a third of the prison was destroyed by the flames. Some inmates were rushed to the hospital with serious burns but those who survived slept in the undamaged cell blocks.
On Thursday morning, a few remaining bereaved family members lingered around the prison trying to get information.
Loaded up onto trailers, the dead were sent to a morgue in Tegucigalpa, where around 200 relatives set up tents to prepare for a long wait.
“In some cases it will be impossible to identify them because they are completely burned,” said an official at the attorney general’s office, Danelia Ferrera.
Forensic experts asked family members to identify any distinguishing characteristics of their next of kin, like tattoos or birthmarks, in the hopes of speeding up the process.
Delmira Argueta, 51, waited outside the morgue for word of her missing son Luis, who was serving time for homicide.
“I‘m not going to leave here until they give me my son, even if he’s in pieces and all wrapped up,” she said.
Officials now say they have pulled 355 bodies from the jail where the 852 prisoners were housed - packed way over capacity.
Honduran authorities said the prison was built for 400 but prison chaplain Moncada said it was meant for just 250.
Honduras’ jails operate at 48 percent over capacity, according to the Supreme Court data.
At more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, Honduras’ murder rate is 16 times that of the United States, according to a United Nations study.
The degree of slaughter in Comayagua has thrown the country’s problems into sharp relief, said Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “We’re talking about a total breakdown of the state.”
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray