Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prison Fire in Honduras: Another Chapter in an Old Story

The English language press is reporting another prison fire in Honduras, this time in a prison in San Pedro Sula with as much as 1800 or 2250 inmates, that was built to contain a maximum of 800, according to Honduran press reports.

According to CNN, the dead include "a prisoner who was decapitated". Ricardo Ramirez, described as chief of police of San Pedro Sula (actually now the head of the National Police), is cited as saying that before the fire "shots had been heard from inside".

USA Today titled its article 14 dead in Honduran prison fire amid riot. Quoting "authorities" they summarize the deaths as occurring "after armed inmates started a fire during a riot". They quote police commissioner Yair Mesa:
"The uprising has been put down with the need to fire shots," Mesa said by telephone from inside the prison. He added the 14 victims apparently died of burns or asphyxiation. The cause of death could not immediately be determined because the bodies were so badly burned.

Also quoted: fire chief Jose Danilo Flores who USA Today quotes as saying that
the prisoners themselves appeared to have fought the fire inside the facility. But Flores said the armed inmates had kept firefighters from entering earlier in the day.

This is a far too familiar story. USA Today actually managed to add the most necessary context:
In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras' prison system had nearly 38% more prisoners than it was built for, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.

Perhaps predictably, Honduran coverage was less subtle. La Prensa wrote "13 muertos dejá motín" (uprising leaves 13 dead), putting all the responsibility for the deaths on the prison uprising, and avoiding any discussion of the overcrowding the grows out of the policies of the government:
The uprising was produced after a quarrel among the group of prisoners called "los paisas", who are the prisoners that are not related to either of the two gangs that operate in Honduras.

The point at issue was generated after there was encountered inside a cell, the decapitated body of Mario Álvarez, one of the sub-coordinators of los paisas. The head of the prisoner was thrown from inside toward the area of the entrance to the jail area, whose control has not been possible to be retaken in its totality by the Police to avoid a repetition of the gunshot that accompanied the beginning of the incident, that left another 12 dead.

The confusing use of the passive voice here, so important to avoid getting into who shot first, makes it hard to completely visualize the turn of events. Now add this:
Police sources stated that the prisoners, among whom firearms had been encountered, presented to the Police a sheet of demands to return control of the jail, but they threatened that if they were not given a response, they would kill another coordinator of los paisas.

What those demands were goes undocumented.

Given the normal propensity for La Prensa to provide the most lurid and stereotyped view of things, their coverage of this fire seems almost matter of fact.

But a comparison to coverage in El Tiempo allows us to see some differences. Start with the title: Sube a 13 el numero de víctimas (the number of victims climbs to 13).

The account of the fire is also somewhat different: Tiempo repeats the claim seen in La Prensa that the fire was in the kitchen area, crediting it to a "police official". But it also includes other reports: that the origin point was the conjugal visit cells, citing a fire officer; and that it began in "
Zona 18, occupied by gang members", the latter without a specific source.

The AFP reproduced a Spanish language story that indicated that the prison was back under the control of the authorities. Despite repeated quotations of Honduran police and government officials saying that the actual events would only be clarified by investigation, the AFP story includes repeated claims about how the incident started, who was responsible, and what happened, sometimes by the same person almost simultaneously saying that the investigation would have to be carried out to know what they just said they knew:

For example, Walter Amaya, a police official, is quoted saying that
"organized bands that are in conflict provoked" the fire in San Pedro Sula, but he asked "to await the results of the investigations" to have more precision about what happened.

AFP, which is the source of the higher prison population estimate of 2250, follows Honduran government sources in describing the inmates entirely as members of
fearsome gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Mara 18 (M-18), and other bands of drug traffickers, kidnappers, and vehicle thieves.

What they omit is how many of the prisoners were not so fearsome: whether, as was the case in Comayagua, a portion of the incarcerated were uncharged or still awaiting trial.

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