'Shoot me! You'd be doing me a favour'

Survivors told of a deadly wall of flame that swept through a cellblock crowded with youth gang members in Honduras, killing 103 of them and sending fleeing inmates—many with limbs on fire—scrambling over the bodies of their dead comrades.

As in past prison tragedies, Honduran authorities and inmates differed over the cause: authorities said a short-circuit in overloaded air conditioners sparked Monday’s blaze.

But in interviews, four survivors—all members of the feared Mara Salvatrucha 13 gang - told of a much swifter-moving fire they said was set by other inmates in a bid to exterminate them.

“Shoot me! Shoot me! You’d be doing me a favour!” a badly burned inmate, Santos Arnulfo Pena (29) recalls screaming at guards who trained their guns on inmates fleeing the burning cellblock. The guards fired some warning shots, but all the deaths appeared to be from smoke inhalation and burns.

Prison spokesperson Jose Bustillo said many of the gang members tried to attack firefighters when they arrived, prompting guards to fire in the air “to prevent a massive prisoner escape”.

Pena said guards refused to open the cellblock, turning its only exit into death trap. “We screamed and screamed at them to let us out, but they wouldn’t,” he recalled.
After about a half hour, the inmates themselves broke down the cellblock door using a set of weights.

The death toll was expected to rise; 103 of the 186 inmates died outright, and 23 more were hospitalised with severe burns, like those of Carlos Roberto Orchaga, his face and body a mass of swollen tissue and peeling tattoos. The gangs’ symbols are tattoos of deaths-head, daggers and dice.

“It was a single flame, like an explosion,” Orchaga recalled. “I put a mattress over me and ran to the exit, but it was locked. The ‘homies’ [fellow gang members] who were sleeping on the floor, they were all dead.”

Pena survived by hiding in a bathroom; a third inmate, Olmon Alberto Contreras, had washed his only blanket that day; still wet, it saved his life by warding off the flames.

“The other prisoners poured gasoline down on us,” Pena claimed from his bed at the Mario Catarino Rivas hospital. Orchaga agreed; “It was just like Choluteca, just like La Ceiba,” he said, recounting other prison fires and mass killings in Honduras in recent years. “They want to wipe us out.”

In April 2003, a clash and ensuing fire at La Ceiba prison killed nearly 70 inmates—again, all gang members—and an investigation later blamed guards and police for most of those deaths.

Vice-President Vicente Williams promised to find funds to improve the overcrowded penal system.

“Honduras’ jails are a time bomb,” Williams said at the damaged prison in San Pedro Sula, 180km north of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Many of the imprisoned gang members killed on Monday were detained during the country’s recent crackdown on gang violence. In August, Maduro succeeded in passing legislation outlawing gangs and establishing minimum sentences of 12 years for gang members.

The new law has seriously exacerbated already severe overcrowding in the country’s jails. Honduras’ penitentiaries consist of 27 old buildings housing 13 000 prisoners, twice their capacity. The prison in San Pedro has room for 800 prisoners, but held 1 960 at the time of the fire, police commissioner Wilmer Torres said.

No prisoners escaped.

There are more than 100 000 gang members belonging to 500 different gangs in Honduras. In response to the government crackdown, they have staged a number of increasingly gruesome killings in recent months, leaving decapitated heads and mutilated bodies—often of young women—alongside scrawled messages of defiance. - Sapa-AP

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