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Honduran prison fire kills 103 inmates
Updated: 2004-05-18 08:01

An early morning fire at an overcrowded prison in northern Honduras on Monday consumed a cellblock housing gang members, killing 103, many as they slept, and injuring 25 others.

The 1:30 a.m. fire was sparked by an air conditioner short-circuit in a cellblock occupied by 186 prisoners, Police Commissioner Wilmer Torres said. Some prisoners burned to death while others died from smoke inhalation.

"We woke up with our clothes and our beds in flames," prisoner Jose Mauricio Lopez told a radio station from his hospital bed.

Another prisoner, identified as Antonio Flores, said he heard an explosion "and then the cell block caught immediately on fire."

Firefighters brought the blaze under control quickly, but it already consumed a large part of the jail in San Pedro Sula, 110 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, by the time they arrived. There were no reports of any escapes, Torres said.

Officials said 103 prisoners died and 25 others were injured.

It was the second deadly prison fire in Honduras in a little over a year, and Vice President Vicente Williams promised to find funds to improve the overcrowded system.

"Honduras' jails are a time bomb," Williams said at the damaged prison in San Pedro Sula, 110 miles north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Many gang members started attacking firefighters, prompting guards to fire in the air "to prevent a massive prisoner escape," said prison spokesman Jose Bustillo.

But one prisoner, Pablo Cardona, said the guards "fired at us repeatedly from outside the cell block to stop us from leaving, despite our cries for help."

Hundreds of concerned relatives rushed to the prison seeking information as officials lined up victims' bodies in rows on the ground, their elaborate tattoos visible on exposed chests and arms.

The bodies later were taken away in refrigerator trucks, and San Pedro Sula Mayor Oscar Kilgore said the city would donate coffins for the dead.

Officials initially said the fire was caused by an overheated refrigerator because inmates said they heard the appliance explode. But firefighters later said an air conditioner short circuit was to blame.

Many of the imprisoned gang members were detained during the country's recent crackdown on gang violence. In August, Honduras passed legislation outlawing gangs and establishing minimum sentences of 12 years for gang members.

There are more than 100,000 gang members belonging to 500 different gangs in Honduras. All the prisoners in the destroyed cell block belonged to the Mara Salvatrucha, one of the most violent of Central America's gangs.

The new law exacerbated the country's prison overcrowding problem. Honduras' penitentiaries consist of 27 old buildings housing 13,000 prisoners, twice their capacity.

The prison in San Pedro has a capacity of 800 prisoners but held 1,960, Torres said.

"This is a horrible tragedy," Monsignor Romulo Emiliani, the area's auxiliary Roman Catholic archbishop, said upon arriving. "And the situation is worse because there are too many people in a single cell. ... This shouldn't happen."

Human rights groups who have pushed for alternatives to jail terms for young gang members demanded a serious investigation.

"What happened in the San Pedro Sula jail is painful and terrible," said Jose Manuel Capellin, of the humanitarian group Casa Alianza. "There is repression against the gang members. The government only offers them jail."

President Ricardo Maduro, who cut short a European state trip to return home, acknowledged an overcrowding problem and said his administration was working to improve it.

"At the beginning of our fight against crime was a decision: Do we capture more criminals or do we let them free in the streets?" Maduro said. "We decided that obviously we must protect our citizens and capture them."

In April 2003, some prisoners were locked in their cells, doused with gasoline, and set on fire during an uprising at El Porvenir prison. Nearly 70 people — including guards and visitors — died.

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