Honduran church works to help survivors of prison fire


Catholic News Service

SAN SALVADOR — The Diocese of Comayagua is working with prison authorities to try to help survivors of one of the world’s deadliest prison fires.

Bishop Roberto Camilleri of Comayagua, where more than 350 people died overnight Feb. 14, said he visited with survivors and took them water, “because some small aid has started to come to our diocese.”

“I talked with them because our presence is important to give them spiritual support,” Bishop Camilleri told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Feb. 16.

A relative of an inmate cries outside a prison in Comayagua, Honduras, Feb. 16. A massive fire that began Feb. 14 in the overcrowded prison killed more than 350 inmates, many of them trapped inside their cells. It was one of the world's deadliest prison fires. (CNS/Reuters)

“It was sad to see scorched bodies lying on each other,” he added.

The bishop and the prison chaplain, Father Reinaldo Moncada, pointed out that the prison was overcrowded — it was designed for 250 people and was holding more than 850. Bishop Camilleri also told CNS that 52 percent of the inmates had not yet been sentenced.

“One does not understand how this many people can live in such a small space,” he told CNS.

He said the bishops’ conference would meet the week of Feb. 20 to discuss how to support victims’ families, “because the dead are not only from Comayagua, but also from the rest of the country, and we will be announcing measures on that matter.”

Firefighters have not determined what started the fire.

“Rumor has it that it was caused by electric shock or even by a criminal hand, but we really don’t know, and as church we (would) rather wait for the official explanation,” the bishop said.

In videos of the fire circulating on the Internet, screams of prisoners can be heard, as well as gunshots.

“We are investigating why shots were fired by prison guards, and we were told that they did it to prevent a massive escape,” the bishop said. “We don’t want to anticipate the official inquiry, but we certainly want to know the truth as it is, without anybody trying to pull the wool over our eyes.”

In a statement released by the diocese, Bishop Camilleri invited people to join in a “common effort to alleviate the most urgent short- and medium-term needs of the survivors of the incident and those families affected.”

He urged Hondurans to unite as “we demand authorities to improve prison conditions and human safety measures in security facilities, to safeguard the integrity and dignity of prisoners, and to not repeat again such an unfortunate tragedy.”

Prisons in Honduras, like much of Latin America, are beset by overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions and populated by a large number of inmates who are awaiting or involved in trials and are not separated from those who have been convicted of crimes.

“It’s a total abandonment of human rights” in prisons, said Alba Mejia, who works on torture cases for a Honduran nongovernmental organization.

The tragedy in Comayagua was the latest in a series of difficulties for Honduras since a June 2009 coup, in which then-President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and flown by the military to Costa Rica, plunging the country into economic and political turmoil.

Juan Sheenan, country director for Catholic Relief Services in Tegucigalpa, said the security situation in Honduras has deteriorated since the coup. Making matters worse, drug cartels have moved into Honduras, using the country as a base for moving narcotics between South America and the United States.

“It’s getting tough,” Sheenan told CNS. “More and more drugs are moving through Honduras … there’s increased gang activity.”

He said Catholic Relief Services has been unable to work in some rural regions because of insecurity. The Mexican group Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice recently ranked San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the world’s most violent city, with a murder rate of 158 per 100,000 residents.

Sheenan says the violence and poverty of the past three years has prompted many young Hondurans to leave, heading north toward the United States, even though Mexico is considered dangerous due to criminal gangs kidnapping migrants for ransom and forcing some to join drug cartels.

Migrant shelter operators in Mexico report the overwhelming majority of their guests are originally from Honduras.