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Relatives storm Honduras morgue after jail fire

February 21, 2012

TEGUCIGALPA – Scores of relatives of the 359 inmates killed in a blaze that gutted a Honduran prison broke through police barriers Monday and opened body bags in a desperate search for their kin’s remains.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation and the identification of the badly charred bodies, relatives took matters into their own hands when morgue officials moved several body bags outside, into their line of sight.

Sobbing family members desperately clawed at the bags hoping to find their kin, only to be forced out by riot police, AFP journalists at the scene said.

“Look at how my son is, he is tossed out like a dead dog there,” said María Hernández, weeping as she opened one of the bags, a fetid stench in the air for hundreds of meters around.

“The delay is beyond unacceptable. If they don’t step up the pace of handing over remains, we are going to take over the morgue,” threatened José Carlos Orellana, father of a 31-year-old victim who was convicted of homicide.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo suspended top officials from the country’s prison system and called for foreign assistance in the investigations, amid accusations that authorities had been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. He pledged compensation for the victims’ families.

A U.S. team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arrived late Thursday to investigate, and Chilean experts also searched the jail.

Under tents set up outside the morgue, the team drew blood samples from relatives of the victims for DNA testing.

“There are bodies that can only be identified with DNA testing,” Coroner Antonieta Zúñiga said after explaining that many bodies were charred beyond recognition.

Lindolfo Hernández, brother of one of the victims, said, “They told me that it would be difficult to give me my brother’s body because it is in a bad state, but I’ll stay here until they’ve done it.”

His brother, jailed for 10 years for rape, was due to be released in two months.

Six days after the flames swept through the overcrowded Comayagua jail – which had held double its capacity with 852 inmates – the cause of the fire still was unclear.

Several funerals took place in various towns around the country Friday after authorities released the bodies of the first 24 victims of the inferno.

“This was a barbaric crime,” said Trinidad Varela, who bid a final farewell to her 28-year-old son, Edwin Ortega, in the town of Talanga, northwest of the capital. “We cannot leave it just like that.”

Around 60 percent of the prisoners in Comayagua had not yet been sentenced.

Delmi Matute could not understand the fate of her husband’s remains.

“We have been waiting here four days but they have not given him to me. My husband died of smoke inhalation, he should be easy to identify, and they still have not given him to me,” she sobbed as she sat with stunned loved ones.

Human rights groups and witnesses questioned the role of the guards and the authorities during the blaze, suggesting negligence or even premeditation.

The Committee for the Defense of Human Rights said in a statement that firefighters arrived too late, the prison director was absent and guards failed to open cell doors to save lives.

The Committee of Families of Missing Prisoners expressed concern about a complaint from a non-identified prisoner who told local media the fire was started by police to cover up a planned escape.

National Police spokesman Hector Iván Mejía denied the suggestion and added that no prisoners had escaped.

But President Lobo acknowledged that some inmates caught up in the fire did escape, without saying how many.

Besides those killed in the blaze, “other inmates fled, but they will be caught,” Lobo told reporters at a press conference.

He also ordered a safety review of the nation’s 23 other jails.

Leftist opposition parties blamed the blaze on “criminal negligence.”

Some 500 inmates who survived the fire remained inside the jail in a wing that was not affected.

“I don’t want to stay in this prison,” said Marco Valladares, who communicated with his wife by mobile phone from inside the jail. “It’s cursed. We knew for a long time that the fire would happen.”

Another survivor, Hector Martínez, said, “The facilities are damaged. I’m afraid.”

Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate – 80 per 100,000 people according to the United Nations – has 24 detention centers with a capacity of 8,000. The prison population is currently around 13,000.

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