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103 Youths Die in Honduran Prison Blaze

May 21, 2004

TEGUCIGALPA – At least 103 prisoners,mostly young gang members of theinfamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS), diedearly Monday morning of asphyxiation orburn wounds from a fire that tore througha prison building housing gangsters in SanPedro Sula’s overcrowded PenitentiaryCenter, 240 kilometers north of the capital.An additional 25 prisoners were hospitalizedwith burn wounds, according toVice-Minister of Security ArmandoCalidonio.The prison tragedy, the worst in thecountry’s history, comes a little more thana year after 68 Honduran prisoners werekilled or executed during an April 2003riot with guards in El Porvenir jail, in thenorth coast town of LaCeiba. During the riot,which rights groupsare calling a state authoredmassacre, 61members of the youthgang Mara 18 werekilled.THE San PedroSula prison, originallybuilt to house 1,700inmates, held 2,227prisoners at the timethe fire broke out around 1:30 a.m. onMonday. The blaze apparently wassparked by a short circuit, according toSecurity Ministry spokesman LeonelSauceda.More than 180 prisoners – mostlygang members – were incarcerated togetherin the section of the jail that caught fire.Several of the prisoners who survivedclaimed that the prison guards openedgunfire on the panicking prisoners insteadof opening the jail cell doors to let themout.“THE authorities had the opportunityto go to the jail cells and open the gates,but instead what they did was to shoot tokeep us from leaving the cells,” saidinmate Pablo Cardona, a MS gang member.“They wanted us to die, like the othersdied, they wanted the rest of us to die.The police said: ‘leave them, leave them,’when we yelled for help.”Sauceda acknowledged that several ofthe guards had fired their weapons, butclaimed that they were “alert shots” thatwere not intended for the prisoners. Henoted that none of the corpses taken fromthe prison were found with bullet wounds.Yolanda Perdomo, of the CriminalInvestigation Department, said the autopsieswould reveal if any of the prisonersdied of gunshots. By Tuesday morning,none of the first 30 autopsies revealed bulletwounds, according to on-site forensicmedic Francisco Herrera.THE Catholic Church has called for afull investigation.“This has been an awful event. Nearly100 young men have perished, the majorityof asphyxiation,”said RómuloEmiliani, AuxiliaryBishop of SanPedro Sula, who hasworked on rehabilitationinitiatives forgang members.“This has been oneof the biggesttragedies we havesuffered in thiscountry’s prisonsystem.”Prison director Elías Aceitunoannounced that he was suspended fromhis post following the fire, but that hewould resign from his post permanently.President Ricardo Maduro, whose governmentlast August launched a massivecrackdown on gangs, cut short hisEuropean trip to return to Honduras. Hewas in Rome visiting Pope John Paul IIwhen notified of the fire.“The objective is be sure the necessaryinvestigations are carried out immediately,”Maduro said, according to Reuters.More than 30,000 Honduran youth arebelieved to belong to gangs, mostly in SanPedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. Rightsgroups have blasted the governmentcrackdown as social cleansing.

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