Saturday, March 31, 2012

Honduran Authorities Lit the Match for the San Pedro Sula Fire

More than half of the 13 dead accounted for in San Pedro Sula's prison fire, 7 people, had not been convicted of a crime.

Contrary to English-language press reports, they did not all die from the effects of the fire set during the uprising.

The victim of the death that apparently started the incident was not simply involved in a gang dispute, but was conveying changes ordered by the prison administration.

And as of today, Honduran papers tell us, the facility is still under the control of the prisoners.

We are used to bad reporting, we are used to stereotypes, but given the context for this latest disaster provided by the horror of the Comayagua prison fire, we expected a bit more care on the part of English language media, a bit more digging below the surface.

Contrary to the AP story reproduced in many English newspapers, the cause of death of all thirteen victims was not simply "a fire started by rioters" or "burns or asphyxiation". This was a claim made by government officials, before any bodies had been examined by forensic specialists.

Now, Honduran news outlets report that about half of the dead died as a result of gunshot wounds suffered in the early morning.

While Honduran authorities claimed to have regained control of the prison by late Thursday, Honduran reporting noted that the prisoners retain control of the facility. They turned away human rights officials, and said they wanted to be left in peace.

The English language press described the arrival at the prison on Thursday of the bishop of San Pedro Sula, Romulo Emiliani, as a mediator. Yet none of these stories cited his statements, reported in the Honduran press, telling the authorities that the inmates required a two day cooling off period before the authorities should try to re-enter the facility.

Not all of the reporting is better in the Spanish language press. Accounts of the cause of the unrest continue to be fragmentary, contradictory, and often give no source for information. Prensa Latina on Friday described the person who was decapitated (according to Honduran reports, post-mortem) as what in the US would be called a trustee, but one who in the Honduran prison system apparently had much more of a role in prison administration:
The incident sparked off when Mario Alvarez, an inmate appointed coordinator by the prison authorities to impose discipline, informed about some changes in the cells, and some inmates decapitated him, threw his head in front of the prison entrance and confronted those that accompanied him.

This is in marked contrast to the Honduran press reports, which described Alvarez as a coordinator for a group of prisoners who were unaligned with the two main identified factions in the prison population, implying that the reason he was targeted was a conflict among the factions, rather than for conveying prison administrative orders to the general prison population.

Like the previous disaster, this one was entirely predictable-- indeed, it was predicted, by those who know best what conditions are like in Honduras' prisons and enough freedom to speak: the families of the incarcerated.

As the AP reported,
at the time of the deadly blaze in Comayagua, relatives of inmates at the San Pedro Sula prison warned that it had far worse overcrowding and security conditions.

The suspension of the national head of prisons, Danilo Orellana, was the main action Porfirio Lobo Sosa took after the Comayagua disaster. As Amnesty International noted in a statement following the San Pedro Sula disaster, the government has taken no substantive steps to alleviate the conditions present in Honduran prisons:
"Inmates in Honduras's prisons are being denied their basic human rights and this latest horrific incident shows how precarious their situation continues to be – despite the repeated government promises that no more such incidents will occur," said Esther Major, Amnesty International's Central American Researcher.

“Many of those currently languishing in Honduras’s overcrowded jails have been there for years awaiting trial and have not even been convicted of any crime."

Just this week, the AP reported,
Honduras Attorney General Ethel Deras appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Monday and said the San Pedro Sula prison was housing more than 2,200 inmates even though it had only 800 beds. Nationwide, 24 prisons built for a total capacity of 8,000 inmates are housing about 12,500, he said.

Put those numbers together with Prensa Latina's report that Mario Alvarez had been sent to the inmates to explain some (undefined) changes in the management of the cells-- the crowded spaces to which a prison population that mixed the as-yet untried and the convicted-- and while neither English language press nor Honduran press are likely to ever completely clarify events, we have a suggestion that this incident was started by administrative actions.

They may not have started the fire. But with the conditions they tolerated, Honduran prison authorities lit the match.

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