Central America 20/02/12

Hundreds die in Honduras prison fire, as Guatemala debates legalization of illicit drugs and ICJ mediates decade-long land dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia.

Hundreds die in Honduras prison fire

Just before midnight on Tuesday, the deadliest prison fire in recorded history unleashed hell on the overcrowded Granja Prison of Comayagua, some 100km north of the capital Tegucigalpa.

More than 350 people were killed and dozens “burned beyond recognition”, while others were reported missing, officials said.

Most victims choked to death in their cells, awaiting rescue that took some 40 minutes to arrive and another hour to control the flames, with “scorched bodies carried out piece by piece” as relatives rushed to the area in desperation.

The dead amounted to almost half of the prison’s official population (856), among which were also the spouses of inmates on conjugal visits.

Comayagua firefighters’ spokesman Josue Garcia told reporters ‘we couldn’t get them [the inmates] out because we didn’t have the keys and couldn’t find the guards who had them’.

Those who survived made a miraculous escape by ‘breaking the roof apart so we could go out from above’, one prisoner told reporters. ‘We started ripping apart the ceiling above us.’

He also stated that when some inmates attempted to climb the prison walls to escape the flames, guards opened fire on them to prevent prison breaks.

No official explanation as to what caused the fire has yet surfaced the media, although current accounts are divided between an electrical flaw and a prison riot.

However, the incident has put prison conditions in the country in the spotlight once again, as Granja Prison, with 856 prisoners, is capable of housing only 500.

Furthermore, the facility lacked any medical healthcare, and allowed less than $1 per day for each prisoner’s meals.

‘The tragic deaths of hundreds of inmates, one of the worst incidents of its kind in the region, are ultimately the result of overcrowding and poor prison conditions, two longstanding problems in Honduras,’ said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Much scandal arose from an internal government report released by the Associated Press and referenced in the Guardian, according to which more than half of the dead inmates had not yet been convicted, much less brought before a court of law.

President Porfírio Lobo has vowed a full inquiry into the matter, promising to ‘find those responsible’, but failed to address the conditions under which these inmates were being held.

Guatemala debates legalization of illicit drugs

Also this week, an unlikely piece of news arose, as former army officer famous for his mano dura stance on crime during election time President Otto Pérez Molina stated that he and other Latin American leaders (as his Mexican and Colombian counterparts) would consider legalizing illegal drugs to combat trafficking in the region.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have topped the list of highest homicide rates in the world for the past decade.

Molina’s remarks aroused their expected dose of controversy, not least from the USA, which made clear through its Guatemalan embassy that it ‘continues to oppose such measures because evidence shows that our shared drug problem is a major public health and safety threat’.

Molina deemed the US reaction as ‘premature’ and declared – not unlike his predecessor Álvaro Colom during his last appearance at the UN – that ‘if drug consumption isn’t reduced, the problem will continue’.

ICJ mediates decade-long land dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia

Lastly on Pulsamérica’s Central American headlines this week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the UN’s main judicial organ – announced Thursday that it will hold public hearings regarding a territorial dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia (see History of Proceedings; paragraphs 126-144).

Both parties will present their case between 23 April and 4 May 2012 at the Peace Palace in The Hague in a hearing which is expected to produce the court’s decision on Nicaragua’s claim over 50,000km² in the Caribbean Sea, currently exploited by Colombia.