Gangs claim Honduras prison fire was 'death sentence'

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The Independent US

Survivors of a deadly prison fire that officials have attributed to an electrical short-circuit say the inferno was intentionally set - an accusation likely further to enrage gangs already fighting a vicious battle against the government.

For some members of the Mara Salvatrucha-13, Monday's fire in a cellblock housing 186 of their gangsters was part of a long-term strategy of elimination that began with last year's federal anti-gang law.

"Wearing a [gang] tattoo doesn't deserve a death sentence," said Olmon Alberto Contreras, 18, an MS-13 member who lay with severe burns in a bed at the San Pedro hospital. "Many of the guys who died in there were in jail just because they had tattoos," he said, referring to the saints, skulls, dagger and dice most stencil across their bodies. "When you sow hatred, you reap hatred," Contreras said.

The authorities deny such a strategy but say tough actions are necessary to control an increasingly violent force blamed for everything from common crimes to grisly homicides.

At least 103 prisoners - all believed to be members of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 - died in the blaze at the state prison in San Pedro Sula, 180 kilometers (110 miles) north of the capital, Tegucigalpa. Some were burned to death, while others died from smoke inhalation. More than two dozen others were taken to area hospitals with injuries. It was feared the death toll would mount among nearly two dozen survivors with burns over as much as half their bodies.

A similar fire that broke out a year ago during gang clashes at the nearby La Ceiba prison killed 70 Mara gang members. As in Monday's fire, last year's blaze burned only a cellblock housing the gangs.

Authorities initially said the fire in San Pedro was caused by an overheated refrigerator but firefighters later said it appeared an air conditioner short-circuit was to blame, and that the resulting fire ignited bedding and curtains. They pointed out that about 75 electrical devices - air conditioners, fans and refrigerators - were found in the 10-by-15-yard cell.

But in interviews with The Associated Press, at least four survivors described a sudden explosive sheet of flames that they say was fueled by gasoline, dumped into the cellblock, the only one of 18 to burn.

The Mara Salvatrucha-13 members are among an estimated 100,000 gangsters in Honduras targeted by an August 2003 federal law that punishes gang membership with up to 12 years in prison.

Contreras says his case is typical: He was picked up during an April 6 raid on San Pedro Sula's Asentamiento Humano slum in which he says police detained anyone with gang tattoos and charged them with robbery or "challenging authority." A survivor lying next to Contreras, Santos Arnulfo Pena, 29, nodded in agreement.: "If the police need to fill a quota, they go out and arrest anyone with tattoos," he said. "This is all part of a plan by (President) Ricardo Maduro to exterminate us."

But many Hondurans also feel that coexistence with the gangs is impossible. "They're satanical, they're diabolical," said shop owner Jose Maria Reinald. "They'll kill you for 100 lempiras (US$1.20), or for nothing at all." Recent events appear to reinforce his sentiments.

On May 5, suspected gang members sprayed a family in the nearby city of Progreso with automatic weapons fire, killings four girls and their mother, after one of the daughters reportedly had tried to break off her relationship with a gang member.

In March, police in San Pedro found a decapitated head and body in trash bags, along with a scrawled note threatening Maduro. It was the 12th such suspected gang killing since the law was passed in August.