Fire Highlights Dominican Prison Problems

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A prison fire (search) that killed 134 inmates, one of the deadliest in Latin American prisons, has cast a harsh spotlight on conditions in this country's cells.

The Dominican Republic (search) has the most overcrowded jails in the Western Hemisphere, according to U.N. (search) figures, and the fire early Monday in the eastern city of Higuey happened at one of its worst.

The cellblock where the blaze broke out — known as the Vietnam block — was said to be so packed, inmates were sleeping on top of toilets. To make matters worse, the inmates had guns and knives and easy access to drugs, another notorious feature of prisons here.

"It is hell on earth," said Domingo Porfirio Rojas-Nina of the Dominican National Human Rights Commission said of the Higuey prison. "It is unfit for human beings."

Officials gave varying numbers for the overall population of the prison, a confusion illustrating some of the problems with the system. But there appeared to be at least 178 inmates in the block, which had a maximum capacity of 25.

The government ordered an investigation of the fire, which began during a fight among inmates over who would control their drug trade. Guards said when they went to open the door, they found it blocked.

Bodies were later found "piled up on top of each other" at the door, where the inmates died trying to escape, chief firefighter Nestor Vera said.

Alexander Sanchez, 28, was one of the few to survive.

"When they finally opened the door, we all tried to get out but we didn't all make it, some got trampled to death," said Sanchez, 28, in jail for beating up a man in a dispute over a woman. He has been waiting two years for his trial.

Just 26 prisoners were rescued, said National Police Chief Manuel de Jesus Perez Sanchez.

Among the 134 dead were two Americans from Puerto Rico convicted of cocaine trafficking. Two other Americans, likewise from Puerto Rico, were among 18 inmates injured, officials said.

The riot began with an earlier disturbance in which one inmate was shot and wounded, said the national prison director, Gen. Ramon de la Cruz Martinez.

Guards broke up that fight, but soon after prisoners began rioting, setting fire to their bedding.

Enrique Wilano, 27, a survivor hospitalized with a gunshot to his shoulder and cuts to his face, said some gang members continued fighting as the fire grew into an inferno.

"They didn't want us to leave. Everybody who tried to get to the door got shot or hit with a machete," Wilano said.

Scores of relatives gathered outside the jail.

"I just want to find out if he's still alive," Porfirio Rodriguez said of his son, Ramon, who had been serving time for smuggling migrants to Puerto Rico.

Police directed Rodriguez to a nearby copy shop, where he had to pay a dollar to obtain a list of the victims. Ramon was among the dead.

Austacia Guerrero, the mother of another prisoner, said the inmates didn't have a chance. "They're like sardines in there. They can't move, so how are they going to get out?" she said.

She spoke outside a hospital where officials had brought the bodies.

"If he's here, I can't find him or identify him. All these bodies are burned," Guerrero said.

The disaster came as President Leonel Fernandez was on a trip to Spain. Vice President Rafael Alburquerque, who is acting president until he returns, said the blaze would be investigated by a five-member commission.

"We are truly shattered and I have spoken earlier with the president who told me to let the people of Higuey know of his profound dismay of this tragedy," he said.

Prisons in the region are notorious for gang fights, breakouts and riots. But none are as crowded as in the Dominican Republic.

The country has 35 prisons built for 9,000 prisoners. Last year they held more than 13,500, the State Department says in a recent human rights report.

Monday's fire had one of the highest tolls recorded in decades in the region. Last year, at least 103 prisoners died in a May prison riot and fire in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Officials blamed a short circuit, but gangs also allege that rival inmates threw gasoline into the cells.

In the Dominican Republic, 30 people died in September 2002 at La Vega prison after mattresses were set ablaze in the facility built for 50 but housing 600.

Known for its elaborate shrine of the Virgin Mary, Higuey is on the eastern tip of the island of Hispaniola, which the country shares with Haiti.