By MARK STEVENSON and MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN, Associated Press
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The world's worst prison fire in a century happened in a lockup like many in Honduras: a decrepit, suffocating place of overcrowded, dark cellblocks where many inmates were accused only of petty crimes.
Experts warn a similar disaster could happen again in Central America, where a decade of crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs and out-of-control street crime has left the region dotted with fire-prone prisons often crammed with more than twice the number of inmates they can safely handle.
"You have this tremendous public security crisis and the quick answer that prevailed for all of these years is 'iron fist,'" said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
"By 'iron fist,' you mean increasing penalties, making it more difficult for prisoners to get out of prison," he said. Inmates languish for months, or even years, as their cases slowly move through backlogged judicial systems.
Honduras implemented laws in 2003 that doubled the maximum penalty for being a gang leader to 12 years incarceration. Officials also applied a loose definition of gang leadership, locking people up for having gang tattoos or other signs of apparent criminal affiliation.
That started a wave in Central America, where countries like El Salvador and Guatemala passed their own laws against "Mara" street gangs.
"When the anti-mara laws were approved, that caused a saturation of mara gang members in all of the prisons, it was no longer just common crime," said Renan Inestroza, a congressman with Honduras' governing National Party.
By 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras' prison system had nearly 38 percent more prisoners than it was built for, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
Conditions were ripe for disaster Tuesday, when a fire set by an inmate raced through overcrowded Comayagua prison, burning and suffocating 357 screaming people in their locked cells as rescuers desperately searched for the only set of keys to the facility.
Only six guards were on duty, responsible for 852 prisoners. And the guard with the keys fled, leaving hundreds to burn in their cells.
"The conditions at all 25 prisons are really the same as they were in Comayagua," Inestroza said. "There is tremendous overcrowding."
"The guard personnel in all of the prisons aren't trained in how to handle this type of emergency," he said.
It's the same throughout much of Central America: Prisons in El Salvador are at 253 percent capacity, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies, and lockups in Guatemala at 160 percent. Panama's prisons are filled with nearly twice as many inmates as they were built for.
"This is a structural problem that we're suffering from in the entire Central American region and it's due to the weakness of our prison policies," Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes said. "The prisons are overcrowded, they're overpopulated, and this is a warning call."
An inferno like the one at Comayagua — the third deadly prison fire in a decade in Honduras — could happen anywhere in the region, he warned.
In Geneva, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Friday for a "thorough independent investigation" into the Comayagua fire.
The U.N. agency "is concerned that the problems affecting prisons are by no means confined to Honduras," spokesman Rupert Colville said. "In recent weeks there has been a wave of violence in prisons across Latin America, resulting in loss of lives in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, and Chile."
"These events reflect an alarming pattern of prison violence in the region, which is a direct consequence of, or aggravated by, a range of endemic problems including chronic prison overcrowding, the lack of access to basic services such as adequate floor space, potable water, food, health care, and lack of basic sanitary and hygienic standards," Colville added. "Such conditions are exacerbated by judicial delays and excessive resort to pretrial detention."
Justice systems in Latin America differ greatly from that of the United States, where defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty and many cases go before juries. Napoleonic Code-based systems in many Latin American countries require defendants to prove they are not guilty if an investigation results in their arrest.