The fire at Comayagua on 14 February brings the number of prisoners who have been killed in prison fires in Honduras in the last decade to more than 530. The government’s inaction in the face of repeated prison massacres may well mean that it is found guilty at a hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on 28 February, concerning a fire in 2004. President Lobo described what happened at Comayagua as a ‘tragedy’; others have called it ‘an accident waiting to happen’. But it is already clear that the authorities were at the very least culpable in allowing prisoners to die unnecessarily, and may well be more deeply implicated.
Officials speculated that the fire was caused by a short circuit or a dispute over mattresses. According to three prisoners now on the run, the fire was started by police who had been bribed to kill one of the prisoners. In another version of events, police threw petrol into some of the cells before the fire. In yet another, the fire was part of a prearranged escape attempt in which guards would pretend to shoot at 85 prisoners who had paid more than $4000 each in bribes.
What is certain is that only six guards were in charge of 852 prisoners and they failed to open the cells of those threatened by the flames. Most of those who escaped were freed by a prisoner, ‘El Chaparro’, who risked his life to break the locks. The police opened fire on prisoners trying to leave their cells and prevented the fire service from entering the compound. They also fired tear gas and shots into the ground to hold off crowds of relatives trying to get into the prison.
Criticisms of the police have been dismissed as attempts to ‘discredit’ them. But it would be difficult to find a more discredited police force. Last October, in the most high profile recent atrocity, police officers murdered the son of the rector of the country’s biggest university. They were arrested but allowed to escape. A former police chief, Alfredo Landaverde, said that this showed the police were riddled with corruption and death squads: he was assassinated on 7 December.
In the Aguan valley, more than forty campesinos have been killed, with the police either implicated directly or turning a blind eye. International calls to local police stations in response to the arbitrary arrest of activists, seeking assurances that that they are not being mistreated or tortured, have been met with responses along the lines of ‘well if he isn’t, he deserves to be.’ The police and army act on behalf of a local landowner who is not only the country’s richest man and a supporter of the June 2009 military coup, but was revealed by WikiLeaks to have been known to the US authorities as a major drug trafficker since 2004.
The Honduran authorities and many commentators in the United States argue that the problems are simply due to drug wars and associated corruption. Yet this analysis hides more than it reveals. Hondurans still live with the legacy of the militarised state that ruled the country until the 1980s. Not only do the army and police fail to protect the population, they are a constant threat to it through both organised killings and casual violence, in which few are brought to justice and anyone who questions official impunity is themselves targeted.
As Dana Frank argued recently in the New York Times, the US should not ‘manage a clean-up of the very cesspool it helped to create by supporting a government that owes its power to a coup’. Frank pointed out that Julieta Castellanos, the university rector whose son was murdered, had called for the US to ‘stop feeding the monster’. Coup supporters immediately wheeled out their counter arguments that this will only help the ‘narcos’ and that a corrupt police can be bailed out by bringing in the army, as has already happened with disastrous results in Mexico and is promised in Guatemala. The official US line so far remains as it was last year: when Obama met Lobo in October he welcomed the ‘restoration of democratic practices’ and ‘commitment to reconciliation’, and increased security aid.
However, there have since been some promising signs. The media have begun to take a more critical view of Honduras’s human rights record, and in December Congress imposed some conditions on military and police aid. After the fire, even Fox News linked the police to human rights abuses, quoting from a letter that the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs sent to Hillary Clinton last November, calling for a halt to military and police aid. This letter had been ignored. Shortly before the fire, a new letter was prepared and circulated for signature. It is dated 14 February.