Eyewitness Honduras: Families struggle after prison fire

Comayagua, Honduras — Last month, a delegation from the International Action Center traveled to Honduras to assist with monitoring the presidential election there. Widespread fraud was expected and did indeed happen. The IAC delegation is unanimous in declaring the election as fraudulent. (See articles in WW: Nov. 26, Dec. 2, Dec. 9 and Dec. 19).

While in Honduras, the delegation also had the opportunity to meet with many Hondurans who have suffered under the brutal U.S. government-supported Honduran regime. One such meeting was in Comayagua, Honduras’ original capital, with the families of men murdered in a horrific prison fire.

In January 2012, some 362 men died in a fire in the prison in Comayagua. Nearly every family in the town lost someone — 80 percent of the prisoners were from Comayagua, and all of them were poor. The fire started at 10:30 a.m.; at 10:35 a.m. all the prison gates were locked.

There is a large U.S. military base near the prison with fire-fighting equipment. In addition, a local firehouse is located three minutes away. However, when firefighters arrived, military police refused to let them help.

Many of the men who died had committed only very minor crimes of survival: for example, taking firewood in order to keep their families warm. One man was imprisoned for taking two chickens to feed his family.

A number of prisoners had already been scheduled to be freed when they died in the fire. One woman told the delegation that her husband was supposed to have been freed six months earlier.

Another man received a call from his son in the prison the night before the fire; a guard had told the son that something horrible was going to happen. The next day his son was dead.

Eighty prisoners escaped by putting on guards’ uniforms. Many bodies were unidentifiable and most have never been returned to their families. Prison authorities did not even know the names of all those who died. No prison employees died; the officers and most of the guards ran away. Four guards asked to help but were refused.

The families want to know who was responsible, why the doors were not unlocked, why the guards ran away. Although the evidence shows that the fire was deliberately set, only half of the families have received any financial help from the government.

The families have made many attempts to get the truth and to see those responsible punished. They know the death of their loved ones was genocide, but the investigation has been slow. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has allegedly been involved in the investigation. What official inquiries there have been call the fire an accident, and evidence has been “lost.” Not one person has been charged.

The families are expected to pay for forensic reports, which they cannot afford. Since forming the group “Committee of Families of the Victims of Comayagua Prison,” family members have been threatened, shot and fired from their jobs. They have insufficient food — many of the prisoners who died were also the main financial support for their families, since they were able to work inside the prison. Since the fire, these families feel trapped and fear for their children.

This is not the only such recent crime in Honduras. More than 800 prisoners have been killed in prison fires since a U.S.-supported military coup d’etat in 2009 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya Rosales and returned the ruling National Party to power. Since then, the human rights of the Honduran people have been brutally violated.

Honduras is a story of assassinations, land grabs by the big transnational corporations, intense poverty and terrorism against the Honduran people, all with the backing of the U.S. government. It is also a story of continued militant resistance.