Honduras’ Horrific Prison Fire: Will Central America’s Elites Assume Their Responsibility?

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Orlando Sierra / AFP / Getty Images

Relatives of inmates await outside the National Prison of Comayagua compound in Comayagua, Honduras, on Feb. 15, 2012, where more than 300 prisioners were killed and scores injured when fire tore through the prison overnight.

Updated Feb. 16

A year ago this month, William Brownfield, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics & Law Enforcement, toured a police training site in Honduras and heard assurances from officials there that with U.S. help they’d improve the nation’s horrific, overcrowded prisons. Brownfield had just handed them $1.75 million, the first installment for Honduras from a $200 million U.S. pledge to help Central America fight the violent drug crime terrorizing the isthmus. And he was encouraged by Honduras’ commitment to a sorely needed “security tax” that would raise $400 million for police upgrades and judicial reform over five years. It finally seemed the quintessential banana republic was getting its act together.

(PHOTOS: The aftermath of the horrific prison fire.)

Brownfield and the Obama Administration had every right to be chagrined when, seven months later, Honduras’ oligarchic business lobby – representing industrialists who pay some of the world’s lowest tax rates – forced the national Congress to chop the security levy by 75%. It was all too predictable in a country and a region where the elite’s sense of civic responsibility is virtually non-existent. And the consequences were all too evident this morning, Feb. 15, in Comayagua, Honduras, where more than 300 inmates were killed in a fire that broke out in an overcrowded prison late Tuesday night. When reporters pressed Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla for answers, his reply was hardly surprising: “We don’t have the money.”

Even in Latin America, where unconscionably squalid, violent prisons are the norm, the Comayagua inferno “is an extraordinary tragedy,” says Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight, a website that tracks crime and security issues in the region. Most of the more than 800 inmates in the prison, which Honduran authorities say houses convicts guilty of violent crimes – but which news reports now say held hundreds who hadn’t even been charged yet – were locked in their cells when the fire began, apparently due to an electrical short or a crazed prisoner who set a mattress ablaze. But prison officials say guards couldn’t find keys in time to help screaming inmates to safety. It was Honduras’ third ghastly prison fire in less than a decade: 170 total died in blazes in 2003 and 2004.

The Honduran prison system is packed more than 40% beyond its capacity. One penitentiary, in San Pedro Sula, was built for 550 inmates and holds more than 2,000. Comayagua’s, built for 400, houses close to 850. That’s largely a result of the “Mano Dura,” or Hard Hand approach the government there and those in other Central American countries have taken in recent years against the explosive proliferation of violent drug gangs, which have turned the impoverished region into one of the world’s major narco-trafficking corridors. But without sufficient resources for  judicial and prison modernization, the hard hand has to a large degree hardened the violent crime crisis. “These ludicrously overcrowded prisons have simply become crime operation centers for gangs like The Maras,” McDermott told me. “It’s there where these gangs are at their most organized.” Having visited prisons where The Maras hold court, I have to agree.

(SEE: The ‘Deadliest Zone’: Hillary Clinton Visits Central America’s Narco-Nightmare”)

As long as the region’s upper class keeps blocking security-related revenue initiatives, as it’s also tried to do in violent crime-ridden places like Guatemala, law enforcement is left with few tools but the “knee-jerk policy of indiscriminately sweeping anyone even remotely believed to be affiliated with a gang, anyone with a tattoo, into prison,” says McDermott. And the real tragedy, he notes, is that many of those rounded up, especially youths, are innocent but are turned into violent gangsters inside the lockups.

So the tax Hondurans do pay is murder: the country now has the world’s highest homicide rate, a frightening 86 per 100,000 residents last year, 17 times the U.S. rate and five times that of even drug-warring Mexico. Meanwhile, Honduran prosecutors say drug gangs recently pilfered 22 grenade launchers from the military.

It’s true that the U.S. and its insatiable drug demand bear a large share of the blame. Still, when I saw Brownfield shortly after Honduras’ security tax vote last fall, I asked for his response to Central America’s apparent unwillingness to assume its own responsibility for the emergency – that is, building credible judicial institutions instead of the medieval security apparatus it has now. Why did its governments seem to think Washington and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) would do it for them? “We will not do it for them,” he said bluntly, especially with the U.S. recession forcing the Administration to cut its aid to the region.

Security analysts hope the Comayagua nightmare will move Honduras to do more. “If this national tragedy doesn’t stir them to a firmer resolution,” says McDermott, “I can’t imagine what will.”

And yet, don’t hold your breath. A few years ago, after a military coup that ousted then President Manuel Zelaya, I visited the head of Honduras’ powerful industrial chamber, textile baron Adolfo Facussé. At his palatial home overlooking Tegucigalpa – surrounded by the kind of private security that makes his ilk fairly oblivious to the desperate need for public security below – Facussé dismissed the notion that Central America’s elites resist development, especially institution-building, because it threatens their feudal comfort. But he told me that the leftist and often erratic Zelaya “was right about the need to better redistribute wealth. He just went about it the wrong way.” When I asked what the right way was, Facussé would only say, “Honduras can’t be the same after this, I promise you.”

Right now we have more than 300 gruesome reasons to believe that little if anything has changed – or is likely to – in the quintessential banana republic.