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Deadly Prison Fire Kills Hundreds in Honduras

They screamed from their dilapidated cells as a scorching fire swept through the prison where they were held. But the cries of prisoners burning alive inside the overcrowded Comayagua National Penitentiary in Honduras on February 14, 2012 were met by gunshots fired by guards trying to prevent their escape from the inferno.

"There was no mechanism to extinguish fires, no evacuation plan. The firefighters were not allowed to get there quickly and the guards, instead of acting appropriately, only fired shots in the air, supposedly because that is the established procedure in case of escapes," said prosecutor German Enamorado.

The final body count totaled 362 – mostly prisoners, but also family members participating in conjugal visits and a woman who was inside the facility illegally. Many bodies were burned beyond recognition; other victims died due to smoke inhalation. The Comayagua blaze was the world's worst prison fire in a century.

Investigators initially speculated that the fire was started either by a prisoner who set his mattress alight or by a short circuit in the facility's electrical system. Some prisoners and their families, however, said the fire was neither an accident nor the work of an individual, telling reporters they thought it was to facilitate an escape by members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), one of Honduras' most violent gangs.

But no matter the origin of the fire, the underlying cause of so many deaths was the prison itself.

Like the rest of Honduras' 24 prisons, the Comayagua facility – about 55 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa – was overcrowded and in disrepair. Honduras' prison population of around 12,000 is more than 60% over capacity, and Comayagua held more than double its capacity of 400 prisoners at the time of the fire. About half of the prisoners at the facility had not been convicted and were awaiting trial.

One prisoner who died in the blaze, Nelson Avila-Lopez, 20, was just 16 when he fled Honduras to avoid being recruited into a gang. He crossed into the U.S. and was living in Los Angeles until he was wrongly deported in October 2011.

According to U.S. officials, Avila-Lopez was granted an automatic stay to argue for permanent residency but was returned to Honduras by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which said in a statement that his deportation was likely the result of miscommunication between ICE and the immigration court.

The prisoners at Comayagua died when some of the guards fled during the fire and others delayed in releasing them from their cells. Prisoner Marco Antonio Bonilla found a set of keys and freed hundreds of fellow prisoners. It reportedly took up to 40 minutes for firefighters to respond; some of the prisoners who escaped the blaze did so by breaking through a roof and jumping to safety.

"We couldn't get them out because we didn't have the keys and couldn't find the guards who had them," stated Comayagua fire department spokesman Josue Garcia.

In the aftermath of the fire, prisoners' family members gathered at the facility while lists of the names of the dead were read; some tried to force their way into the prison to reclaim the remains of their loved ones and were repulsed by police officers who used tear gas.

Amid calls from human rights groups and the United Nations for an inquiry into the cause of the Comayagua fire, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo suspended several top prison officials. Political opposition parties blamed the incident on "criminal negligence."

"We are going to review the conditions in all the penitentiary centers to see how we can improve the overcrowding conditions that exist in many of our prisons," Lobos stated.

As of February 2013, the one-year anniversary of the conflagration, no criminal charges had been filed, the investigation into the blaze remained open and the prison was being rebuilt. According to a review by the Honduran Office of Human Rights, there was "no evidence of criminality in the origin of the fire."

Bonilla, the prisoner who had released other prisoners from their cells, thereby saving their lives, was promised a presidential pardon. However, Honduran law did not permit commutation of his murder conviction and he remains incarcerated.

The Comayagua fire was the third fatal prison fire in Honduras since 2003. [See: PLN, Jan. 2005, p.8].

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, McClatchy Newspapers,, CNN, New York Times

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