TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - Six guards, 800 prisoners, one set of keys. The numbers spelled disaster when fire tore through a prison and 355 people died, many of them men who had never been convicted of a crime.
The deadliest prison blaze in a century is exposing just how deep government dysfunction and confusion go in Honduras, a small Central American country with the world's highest murder rate.
Prisoners' scorched bodies arrived in the state capital of Tegucigalpa on Thursday for identification, which authorities said could take weeks. Dozens of family members gathered outside the morgue wearing surgical masks against the strong smell as police called out the names of the less-charred bodies they could identify.
Most relatives said they didn't believe the official version explaining the tragedy, that a prisoner set a mattress on fire after threatening late Tuesday night to burn down the farm prison 56 miles north of Tegucigalpa. Honduras had been the site of two other major prison fires in the last 10 years. Government officials were convicted in one that killed 69 people in 2003.
"Those who lock up the prisoners are in charge of their welfare. Why couldn't they open the doors?" asked a weeping Manuela Alvardo, 69, who lost her 34-year-old son in the fire. He was to finish serving his murder sentence in May. "It couldn't have been a mattress fire. This guy wasn't alone. He was in a crowd. They wouldn't have allowed that to happen, they would have put out the fire."
Such is Honduras, which the U.N. recently determined suffered a murder rate of 82 homicides per 100,000, almost five times higher than Mexico. The U.S. recently pulled its Peace Corps workers from the country for security reasons, and has sent a special envoy to help the country deal with its high crime rate, much of it related to street gangs and drug trafficking.
Howard Berman, then-chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, last fall questioned U.S. aid to Honduras when human rights abuses involving security forces "reached a distressing pitch." The U.S. State Department has criticized the Honduran government for harsh prison conditions, citing severe overcrowding, malnutrition and lack of adequate sanitation.
"The most chilling aspect of this rather gruesome set of problems is that U.S. government assistance is flowing into the thick of it," Berman wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Honduran authorities said they are still investigating other causes of the fire, including that it could have been set in collusion with guards to stage a prison break.
Elver Madrid, director of intelligence for Honduran national police, told the Associated Press outside the prison that inmates have told investigators the fire started with a fight inside a prison barracks over a mattress.
One prisoner threatened to burn the mattress if the other didn't hand it over, and then he set it alight, according to the prisoner accounts, Madrid said. He said matches were readily available inside the prison.
Survivors told horrific tales of climbing walls to break the sheet metal roofing to escape, only to see prisoners in other cell blocks being burned alive above. Inmates were found stuck to the roofing, their bodies fused to the metal.