Hundreds Dead In Honduran Prison Fire

Melissa Block talks with Jason Beaubien about a deadly fire that engulfed a prison in Honduras on Tuesday night, killing more than 350 inmates. It's unclear how the fire started, but the Central American country has a problem with overcrowded prisons and riots among gang members.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to Honduras, where more than 350 people are dead after fire engulfed a prison late last night. Inmates were trapped in cells as the blaze spread. Today, family members crowded outside the prison, searching for information and even trying to push their way inside. The disaster has quickly created a crisis in Honduras, which struggles with one of the world's highest crime rates and massively overcrowded prisons.

NPR's Jason Beaubien is following the story from Mexico City. And, Jason, first, tell us more about what happened, how this fire started.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's still unclear exactly what caused this fire. There's been some speculation. And some people who have been interviewed say that one inmate set a mattress on fire. There's also been one idea that, possibly, this was an electrical fire. Yeah. At this point, that's what investigators are going to have to figure out.

What is clear is that this was really a vision of hell inside this prison last night. It was overcrowded. There was fire. There was smoke. People were panicking, including the guards. Some inmates who've come and have been interviewed have said that the guards never came to even let them out of their cells, that they had to break their way out of their cells. Others got out by going through the roof. And, obviously, many more didn't get out and succumbed either to the fire or the smoke.

BLOCK: How many people were in this prison to start with?

BEAUBIEN: It had a prison population of 850, but it's unclear whether they were actually at that number above it or below it.

BLOCK: We mentioned, Jason, that there was what sounds like a desperate scene of family members outside the prison today.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. As word started to spread of this fire, many friends, family members rushed to the prison to try to find out if their loved ones were still alive. You know, obviously, I am monitoring this from Mexico City, but I've been monitoring the media. I've been watching the TV out of there.

And there was a moment this morning when things really looked like they were about to spiral out of control. There was this big group of women who were trying to enter the compound and they were throwing rocks and riot police used tear gas and were firing live bullets in the air to try to keep them at bay. It really illustrated sort of the frustration of many of the people who were waiting outside.

BLOCK: Well, Jason, the Honduran president spoke about this disaster, this prison fire, earlier today. What did he say?

BEAUBIEN: President Porfirio Lobo came out and he said that he's going to have a full investigation. He fired the head of this prison, and also the head of the prisons nationwide pending this investigation. And, basically, he just said that his thoughts and heart are with the families and said that this would be a full, open investigation that people could have faith in.

BLOCK: What about the bigger context here, Jason? We mentioned the extremely high crime rate in Honduras and a lot of overcrowded prisons, including, apparently, this one.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, the U.N. recently declared that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. It's got a huge gang problem with the Maras. It's got a drug problem, both in terms of drug use and also increasingly with drug trafficking. The Mexican cartels have started moving into Honduras, basically finding it to be an easier place to operate, using Honduras as a transit point for narcotics.

We've been running stories just this week about the corruption there, about cops not just being accused of taking bribes, but actually being accused of murder. The state has really been struggling to deal with this violence. The courts are overwhelmed. Many of these inmates are actually pretrial detainees who haven't even been convicted of anything yet.

So this fire very much is emblematic of a state and a security system and a judicial system that's really been struggling to deal with a huge crime problem across the country.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Jason Beaubien in Mexico City. We were talking about the deadly prison fire in Honduras. Hundreds of inmates were killed. Jason, thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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