Investigators continue to search for answers in the prison fire that killed 358 inmates, as reports suggest that more than half of the inmates at the Comayagua prison had never been convicted, or even charged, with a crime. The farm-style camp in central Honduras held 856 prisoners despite being built to accommodate just 500, crammed into giant barracks with four-level bunk beds. Many were suspected gang members who had been swept up in a "law and order" push in what has become one of the world's most violent countries. The AP reports that according to Honduras' strict anti-gang laws, simply having the wrong tattoo is enough to get someone arrested and jailed.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but there are reports that an inmate managed to call the state governor, screaming that he would burn the prison down, shortly before setting his mattress on fire. After the fire initially started, guards refused to allow fire fighting crews in to the prison for nearly 30 minutes, because they believed that a riot was in progress. At the time the fire happened there were only 12 guards on duty who either didn't have for couldn't find keys to let prisoners out of their cells and rooms. A U.S. military outpost that includes search and rescue and fire teams sits just 15 minutes away, but was never called.
Prisoners who survived the fire told horrific stories of climbing walls and tearing down ceiling tiles in an effort to escape through the roof.. Many of the victims were found stuck to metal pieces of the roof or huddled in the bathrooms, trying to use the water in showers and bathtubs to avoid the fire. Most died of smoke inhalation.
Honduras has been criticized in the past by human rights groups and the U.S. State Department for its deplorable prison conditions that have contributed to previous incidents like this one. A 2004 fire in San Pedro Sula killed 100 inmates and violent riots are common in the overcrowded and poorly managed system. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has promised a full investigation and has already suspended some top prison officials.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.