Honduran president pardons murderer who saved hundreds from jail inferno

Marco Antonio Bonilla used keys to open locks and a bench to smash down doors as fire raged and prison guards panicked

The Honduran government has pardoned a convicted murderer who helped save hundreds of inmates during a fire that killed 360 people last week.

President Porfirio Lobo announced he would pardon Marco Antonio Bonilla, also known as Shorty, for releasing trapped prisoners from the horrific blaze that destroyed Comayagua jail.

While guards panicked and left screaming men to die, Bonilla – who had been outside his cell when the fire began – used a set of keys to unlock several barracks, each housing about 100 men. He also used a bench to smash open other locks.

"He put himself at incredible risk trying to save lives during the tragedy," Lobo said during a televised meeting with ministers.

Bonilla, who was not available for immediate comment, reportedly had just a few months left to serve of a murder sentence.

Reports said 50-year-old the worked as a nurse at the jail and was allowed to live apart from other prisoners.

Comayagua contained about 850 men, twice its official capacity. The dead comprised 359 male prisoners and one wife, who was visiting for Valentine's Day.

One version of events said Bonilla picked up keys dropped by a guard who fled. Another report said he wrested the keys from a guard who was paralysed by the horrifying sights and sounds in the jail.

"Shorty was the only one with honour," Rosendo Sanchez, a survivor, told reporters.

The litany of state incompetence – an overcrowded jail, incompetent guards, firefighters unable to quench the flames quickly, clumsy handling of relatives' anguish – made Bonilla the only candidate for a hero to a traumatised nation.

After the fire, relatives desperate for information clashed with police and stormed the national morgue in the capital, Tegucigalpa, to retrieve remains of loved ones.

At an emotional meeting with relatives on Tuesday, Lobo said the process of identifying bodies was going as fast as possible and that an international tribunal would determine "correct, legal and above all just" levels of compensation.

A team of investigators from the US bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives said the cause of the fire appeared to be accidental, such as a lit match, cigarette or some other open flame.

Honduras's chief prosecutor, Luis Alberto Rubi, told local TV that witnesses had told investigators a prisoner fell asleep while smoking.

Officials initially reported it was started by an prisoner, bearing a grudge, who set fire to his mattress. Later theories suggested an electrical fault, or that it was deliberately started as part an escape attempt.

Human rights campaigners said it was irresponsible for officials to speculate until the definitive report was complete.

Last week the state governor, Paola Castro, said she had received a phone call from a prisoner threatening to burn the jail just before the blaze. She has since amended her story, saying she received a message stating that there was a fire. She added that she had accidentally erased the message.


Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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