Claims of foul play as 100 die in Honduran prison fire

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The Independent US

A fire raging through a Honduran prison killed more than 100 members of a notorious street gang yesterday. Although the official explanation was an electrical short circuit leading to an explosion, family members of the dead were quick to accuse the government of foul play in its increasingly violent crackdown on the country's burgeoning gang culture.

A fire raging through a Honduran prison killed more than 100 members of a notorious street gang yesterday. Although the official explanation was an electrical short circuit leading to an explosion, family members of the dead were quick to accuse the government of foul play in its increasingly violent crackdown on the country's burgeoning gang culture.

The fire broke out in the prison in San Pedro Sula, near the Guatemalan border, in the early hours. According to one survivor, the fire started at around 1.30am, a full two hours before uniformed officers arrived and began opening up cells to allow the inmates to escape the flames and smoke.

Most of the victims died of suffocation in their cells. Rescue workers found 101 corpses. A 102nd victim died on the way to hospital. A further 27 people were still being treated for burns and respiratory problems last night, and four of them were said to be in a critical condition.

It was the worst prison disaster in Honduran history but far from the only one. Just over a year ago, a riot and fire at El Porvenir prison in La Ceiba, also involving violent gang members, led to 68 deaths. On that occasion, one group of prisoners started a fire deliberately, which in turn provoked the authorities to storm in with guns blazing. An official report blamed most of those deaths on the government.

The root of the problem is a gang culture that grew among Salvadorean and Honduran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when civil wars were raging in El Salvador and Nicaragua and transcontinental trading in arms and drugs was at its height.

After the civil wars ended, the gang culture persisted and was subsequently re-exported back to Central America. The Honduran President, Ricardo Maduro, launched a crackdown on the gangs last summer, ordering the arrest of more than 1,000 suspected gang members. Since then, a dozen decapitated bodies, with warning messages attached, have been dumped around the country in apparent retaliation.

In San Pedro Sula, all of the dead were members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, a fact not lost on grieving relatives outside. "Why was the fire only in the area of the gang members?" asked Sara Gomez, the mother of a Mara Salvatrucha member. "Why wasn't it in another area where the other prisoners are? The same thing happened in La Ceiba."

One survivor, Antonio Hernandez, told a radio interview that he heard an explosion. "The fire started at 1.30 and the police arrived to open up the cells at 3.30, although we were shouting 'Help! Help!'," he said.

Another inmate, Pablo Cardona, claimed: "The police were saying, 'leave them in there, leave them in there,' as we were yelling 'let us out' ... They wanted us to die."

A police spokesman Wilmer Torres said: "We are investigating this very carefully to determine the precise causes."

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