Fallout From Deadly Apartment Fire Haunts Honduras

By PETER MICEK Pacific News Service
Friday May 28, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO—“Accident or intentional?” asks the front page headline in El Bohemio News, a local Spanish-language weekly, about a deadly Honduran prison fire. The photo shows tattooed dead bodies lining a yard with police officers in blue jeans standing above them. 

News of the grisly incident and what it may say about the region’s hard-line anti-gang campaigns is important to all U.S. Latinos and especially to Central American immigrants, says Eber Huezo, editor of the weekly El Salvador Día a Día, based in Los Angeles. The fire has drawn extensive coverage in U.S. Spanish-language media, Huezo says.  

The fire, which killed 104 people, occurred May 17 in a single, overcrowded cellblock of San Pedro Sula state prison, 180 kilometers north of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa. The cellblock isolated alleged members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha 13 from other inmates. 

Whether or not the blaze was set intentionally—investigators suspect an electrical short circuit, but survivors say other inmates set the fire with gasoline while guards stood by—the fire has triggered new scrutiny of aggressive Central American gang-fighting policies that leaders have modeled on New York City’s “zero tolerance” approach. 

Observers ask whether authorities’ zeal to stamp out gangs has led to a dangerous dehumanization of suspects that is fueling human rights violations. NGOs allege the anti-gang crusade has legitimized and encouraged a shadowy, extra-judicial system of punishment operating in Central America’s streets and prisons.  

“In part, (the fire) could be an accident. On the other hand,” Huezo says, ensuring inmates’ safety and getting to the bottom of the blaze “is the responsibility of the prison authorities.” Noting that the government is investigating whether guards fired at inmates to keep them from escaping the burning cellblock, he adds: “I think that this case requires much investigation.”  

It was not an isolated case. In April 2003, at a different Honduran prison, nearly 70 people died in a fire that authorities say was triggered by gang fighting. The Associated Press reports that, as in the recent blaze, only suspected gang members in a single cellblock were killed.  

Some 100,000 people in Honduras are in gangs, according to official estimates. The largest gangs also operate on the streets of Los Angeles, home to some 1 million Central Americans, many part of the exodus triggered by Central America’s wars in the 1980s. 

In the 1990s, the United States began to deport alleged gang members in large numbers as their prison terms ran out. Ongoing deportations are at the root of Central America’s gang problem. Young people who are deported find few employment opportunities or educational and training resources in Central America, especially when families remain behind.  

Gangs in countries like Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador maintain webs of connection to the United States to gain experienced members and funding, says Marvin Ramirez of San Francisco’s bilingual weekly El Reportero.  

Four nations —El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala—recently coordinated strict laws against gang members. Critics say the laws threaten civil liberties and stifle forms of lawful dissent and assembly by outlawing gang membership and some public gatherings. The Honduran laws, passed last year, established a minimum sentence of 12 years for gang members. 

Hondurans can be arrested simply for having certain tattoos now, says Huezo of the El Salvador Día a Día newspaper.  

Thousands of gang members left Honduras after anti-gang laws were passed in August, according to Honduran President Ricardo Maduro, who was elected on his “zero tolerance” platform. Mexican authorities say some Central Americans fleeing the hard-line anti-gang regime have entered Mexico, joining the flow of migrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Central America’s prison population has swelled. San Pedro Sula state prison, where the recent fire occurred, was filled to more than double its 800-person capacity. The burned cellblock was meant to house 50 prisoners, but contained 186.  

Honduran anti-gang tactics have drawn international scrutiny because of assassinations by death squads similar to those employed in the 1980s “dirty war” against supposed leftists, according to an investigative series by veteran journalist W.E. Gutman published in Los Angeles Spanish-language daily La Opinión.  

Gutman’s investigations detail how top-ranking Honduran police and security officials accuse one another of allowing death squads to operate or abetting their activities. Suspected human rights violators, however, are rarely brought to justice, the article says. 

Bruce Harris, director of Casa Alianza, a network of shelters that rehabilitate street children regionwide, is quoted as saying that links between Honduran security authorities and extra judicial executions are no longer “rumor, but a verifiable fact.” Casa Alianza reports that between January 1998 and February 2004, 2,200 people under the age of 23 were killed in Honduras, most shot in the head, execution-style.  

One La Opinión article quoted Honduran columnist Billy Peña from the El Tiempo newspaper: “The extra judicial executions are becoming as common as pan con mantequilla (buttered bread).”  


Peter Micek works for NCM, an association of over 600 print, broadcast and online ethnic media organizations founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service and members of ethnic media.