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Burning the dregs of Honduran society

(Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

The following is my latest piece for Al Jazeera:

On February 14, over 350 inmates at La Granja penitentiary in Comayagua, Honduras perished in a fire – the latest in a series of obstacles to existence among the Honduran prison population, which has over the years been subjected to various incinerations and massacres as well as to floodwaters from Hurricane Mitch.

On February 17, the prominent Honduran newspaper El Heraldo, mouthpiece of the elite and champion of the 2009 coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya, announced that there were innumerable hypotheses as to the origins of the blaze, among them conspiracy theories and material worthy of “crime novels”. After reviewing such possibilities as that the “delinquents” had set the fire to facilitate a prison break or to register their distaste with a new law permitting the extradition of persons affiliated with organised crime, the author of the article observed:

“Meanwhile, extremist persons have dared to accuse the government of being behind events like Comayagua, with the aim of ‘eliminating’ ‘undesirable’ gang members. This group of people is referring to [the circumstances of] two prison fires in 2003 and 2004”. [quotation marks in original]

Such is the fascinating art of Honduran journalism, which permits its purveyors to – in the very same paragraph – acknowledge the state’s role in previous fire-based elimination efforts while condemning as “extremist” anyone who might detect continuity in government aims.

Among said extremists is Maria Luisa Borjas, former chief of internal affairs for the Honduran police force, who personally confirmed to me that approximately 3,000 young people were extrajudicially eliminated during the administration of President Ricardo Maduro (2002-06) via a broad application of the term “gang member”.

Oscar Alvarez, Maduro’s Security Minister, was invited to reprise his security role in the illegitimate post-coup government of Pepe Lobo. By this time, the “undesirable” category in Honduras had expanded to include anyone concerned that military coups were not democratic.

As the indefatigable Dana Frank noted in a recent piece forThe Nation:

“Over 300 people have been killed by state security forces since President Lobo came to power… At least forty-three campesino activists have been killed by police, members of the military, and private security guards.”

American University anthropologist Dr. Adrienne Pine has meanwhile stressed that it was Lobo himself who, as President of the Congress in 2003, promoted the Anti-Gang law criminalising things like the possession of tattoos and resulting in the severe overcrowding of prisons.

US fights fire with flashlights

The prevailing view in Honduras regarding the dispensability of certain segments of the country’s human population was nicely summed up in the first comment appearing below the Heraldo article on the Comayagua fire, submitted by someone identified as “wwwwwwwwwwwwwwww”.

The submitter expressed disgust that there was any public dismay whatsoever over the mass incineration of the “dregs of society”, and exhorted readers to instead celebrate the resulting reduction in the number of domestic “assassins” and “delinquents”.

As notoriously extremist media outlets like msnbc.com have pointed out, however, the majority of the Comayagua inmates were not entitled to such descriptions:

“Most of the prisoners burned alive by a fire at the Comayagua prison in Honduras that claimed 358 lives had never been charged or convicted, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. More than half of the 856 inmates… were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members, according to a report sent by the Honduran government this month to the United Nations. …

“Prisoners only needed to bear a simple tattoo to be incarcerated under the strict Honduran anti-gang laws, the report said. The U.N. condemns the practice as a violation of international law”.

Other kinds of violations of international law have also occurred in the vicinity of Comayagua. For example, the US waged its covert contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s from what is now known as Soto Cano Air Base, located 15 minutes away from the jail. Despite being currently equipped with vast firefighting capabilities and personnel, US forces at Soto Cano did not manage to traverse the short distance required to aid in extinguishing the recent fire – though Joint Task Force Bravo did manage to send flashlights, Glowsticks, and other items immensely useful in situations characterised by large blazes.

Click here to continue reading at Al Jazeera.

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