February 29, 2012

Faulty logic in the Honduras prison fire

Honduran prison fire: searching through body bags
Family members searching through body bags for their loved ones
Photos: Proceso Digital and La Tribuna, Honduras

The US ATF team which investigated the Honduras prison fire determined that the cause of the fire was accidental, giving Honduran officials the excuse they needed to absolve themselves of guilt in the deaths of some 360 people. This is faulty logic:

Fire was accidental → Not our fault that 360 people died

The ATF report concluded that possibly a cigarette or match started the fire which then ignited some nearby flammable materials which caused the fire to spread rapidly.

But here are some other pieces of the puzzle:

Honduran prison fire: searching through body bagsAccidental fire started → All but one guard gets out → Fire fighters were called late or arrived late and then were refused entrance → US military firefighting team (15 minutes away) was called to help an hour after the fire started but then 30 minutes later was told not to come because fire was under control → Prisoners were locked inside until 360 died → Fire not our fault → BUT → the massacre of 360 people can only be blamed on prison security forces and ultimately the government.

To go back even further, in 2003, a prison riot/fire in El Porvenir (outside La Ceiba) resulted in the death of 65 prisoners and 3 visitors, some of them caused by bullets from the guards. After pressure by the International Court of Human Rights, and after many years of investigation and trial, some of the lower level El Porvenir guards received sentences of up to 240 years for their roles in the deaths.

In 2004, another prison fire in San Pedro resulted in 107 prisoner deaths. Coincidentally — or not — Honduras just this week admitted responsibility for those 2004 deaths before the same international court and promised to build a new prison, compensate the victims' families, and to realize a public act of recognition in May 2013. In typical feeble OAS fashion, the ICHR congratulated itself on complying with its mission of solving problems with this "friendly" agreement, which "guarantees that these acts will not repeat". Uh, what?

Honduran prison fire: searching through body bagsIn a national address about the fire, when mentioning that experts were coming from other countries to help investigate, President Lobo pointed out that other countries have had the same type of incident. That is so typical of Honduran politicians, to imply that every shameful, grotesque thing that happens in Honduras is no different than anyplace else. But national pride helps them to get away with it. Most people want to believe that the things that happen in Honduras are no worse than any place else. The majority of the population have no outside knowledge to make them think otherwise.

How many other countries have had three such prison fires in less than 10 years in which a total of more than 500 human beings died? How many other countries have sent (a few) prison guards to prison with sentences of hundreds of years after proving in court that they purposely allowed prisoners to die behind locked doors, while they shot at any who tried to save themselves from burning to death?

Honduran prison fire: searching through body bagsHow many other countries, after two such prison massacres in which 172 people died, would not have developed some sort of disaster procedures to ensure that it never happened again?

The most frightening question of all is: How does any person become so inhuman that they believe it is better to let hundreds of people burn alive than to — what? maybe get in trouble? — if they allowed them to escape the fire? Surviving prisoners say that the guards shot at prisoners trying to save their own lives. That may not be true, but until proven false, I believe it. It happened before so there is no reason not to believe it now. We can talk about guards being corrupt, inept, or poorly trained, but that doesn't answer the question of their basic inhumanity. How does a human being stand by doing nothing while allowing hundreds of people to die? One hardened criminal, a convicted murderer, risked his own life to stay behind and break the cell locks possibly resulting in saving some 250 lives. There were no similar stories about guards or firefighters.

The old men

Honduras prison fire: body bagsA few weeks ago there was a story on the news about some number of aged prisoners being granted a pardon or released because they never had a trial, or something. The news showed a group of those joyous prisoners: They all appeared to be in their 70s or 80s and looked like they weighed about 90 pounds each. They looked like the typical sun-wrinkled, humble campesino that you run into out in the country. Now supposedly under Honduran law, criminals over 60 years old do not have to serve prison time, but those men looked a lot older than 60 to me, so that law may be another one of the many laws that are meant to provide impunity to the corruptos but are ignored when it comes to the humble masses.

Who knows if those old men were innocent, stole a chicken to feed their family, were hardened criminals, or never even had a trial? All of those are possibilities. All I know is that by the end of story, I was nearly in tears thinking about the injustice in Honduras, where stealing a couple of sheets of roofing tin gets a man 8 years in prison while stealing a couple of million dollars might get a rich man transferred to a different government appointment so as not to embarrass him or his family or the president who appointed him (and who has probably stolen 10 times that amount).

Honduran prison fire: searching through body bagsWhenever I think about the latest prison fire, I think about those frail old men and hope that the "paperwork" went through before the fire, though it is doubtful that anything could get through the injustice system in Honduras that quickly. Reports are that more than half of the 850 prisoners inside the Comayagua prison had never had the benefit of a trial.

Life goes on

But the Honduran prison fire, as horrendous as it was, was replaced long ago in the Honduran news by newer scandals. Life — and corruption — goes on in Honduras. The victims' families will be compensated and money eases a lot of pain in Honduras. Each hot new scandal helps to sweep the previous one under the rug. After all, the human psyche can only hold so much tragedy and injustice.

The abnormal becomes the normal, and before long, citizens become apathetic. There really are no other options. They live in a society of fear: fear of criminals, fear of police, fear of losing a job, even fear of being murdered for doing the right thing. They know nothing is going to change because it never has. For most, there is no sense in risking their livelihood or lives in trying to change it.


Comprehensive AP article with photos about the fire: Most Honduras fire inmates awaited trial

Oscar Estrada's graphic documentary film: El Porvenir [subtitles in English]
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