Central America 27/02/12

US investigators claim Honduras prison fire accidental, as inmate turned hero is pardoned and region’s gang policy returns to the limelight.

US investigators claim Honduras prison fire was accidental
At the request of the Honduran government, U.S. investigators arrived in Comayagua and concluded on Tuesday that last week’s  deadly prison fire was accidental, and may have been caused by an open flame such as a lighter, a cigarette or matches.

The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa said in a statement that the International Response Team (IRT) from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) ‘was able to rule out other possible causes of the fire, such as a lightning strike, electrical causes, or the use of a flammable or combustible liquid’.

Meanwhile, the process of identifying the dead – whose numbers rose to 360 on Tuesday after another victim died from severe burns in a hospital in Tegucigalpa – continued this week through the efforts of a forensic team based in the National Police Academy of Anapo.

Inmate turned hero is pardoned

However, the tragedy of the worst prison fire in a century was not without its hero, as convicted murderer and assistant to the prison’s doctor, Marco Antonio Bonilla, 50, is said to have helped save hundreds of his fellow inmates.

Bonilla’s efforts were crucial to saving lives since the guard with the prison keys had disappeared when the fire broke out.  One witness has said that Bonilla broke the lock on his cell with a bench.

President Porfírio Lobo promised on Tuesday that he would issue a pardon to Bonilla, who has been in prison for the past 17 years, highlighting that ‘he put himself at incredible risk trying to save lives during the tragedy’.

Region’s gang policy returns to the limelight

Lobo’s generous pardon may have helped the statesman to do some damage-control in a country plagued by dire prison conditions, often featuring a lack of potable water and problems with electricity.

However, the fact that many of the victims had never been charged with a crime, or even put on trial, has put regional gang policy in the limelight once again.

Speaking at an Inter-American Dialogue event in Washington, D.C., the think tank’s president Michael Shifter said: ‘it’s not clear, however horrible this fire was, that it’s going to be a catalyst for some great change’.

‘One would hope that as these tragedies mount, there’s an awareness that this can’t continue, and that the viability of these countries is on the line’, he added.

However, international reaction to the Honduran tragedy has sparked a degree of multilateral dialogue on regional security and organized crime.

On Thurday, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo traveled to Nicaragua to discuss “bilateral issues such as trade and security” with his Nicaraguan counterpart Daniel Ortega.

In addition, from 4-6 March US Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Mexico and Honduras, where he will hold bilateral meetings with both nations’ presidents.

He will also take part in a meeting with Central American leaders convened by President Lobo, the current President Pro Tempore of the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (Central American Integration System – SICA).