Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 409 | Agosto 2015



Between prison fires and media bonfires, empathy is lost

In a setting of as much violence as in today’s Honduras, society is suffering from a generalized fear and a dissociation of empathy, especially when the victims are from the poorest social sectors.

Natalie Roque Sandoval

I woke up with the shouts of my comrades who were breaking through the roof of wood and sheet metal. We had to jump over a wall; others were dying in the flames. The prisoners caught fire as they were grasping the iron bars, unable to break the padlocks on the cells. They were burnt to a crisp; it was hell. Testimony of Victor Sevilla, an inmate who survived the tragic fire at the Comayagua prison on February 13, 2012.

The fire, which started at night, consumed over half of the prison infrastructure and left 262 prisoners dead, was an unprecedented incident in Central America. It even made international news as one of most terrifying expressions of the horror reigning in Honduras, the world’s most violent country “at peace.”
The Honduran State’s investigation, aided by the International Response Team of the US Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages, Tobacco and Firearms, concluded that the fire had “accidental causes.” Nonetheless, doubts and denunciations by family members and human rights organizations regarding the State’s direct criminal responsibility persist until this day.

The following year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recommended that the State “investigate the charges of serious omissions by prison authorities in preventing and controlling the fire as well as in rescuing the victims.” To justify this assertion, the IACHR indicated surviving prisoners’ coinciding testimony on three points: First, the police in charge of the keys didn’t open the cells: second, the police shot at those trying tried to flee the fire from the roofs; and third, the fire fighters were left waiting outside the prison several minutes, unable to enter.

The Porvenir fire

The Comayagua prison fire has been considered the worst tragedy in the Latin American penitentiary system in the last 25 years, but it wasn’t the first in a Honduran prison. Two others of major significance have occurred in the same period of time.

In 2003, a massacre in El Porvenir prison, department of Atlantida, claimed 69 prisoners dead and another 40 wounded. This crime was directly blamed on the prison authorities, the police and military and other prisoners. What occurred at El Porvenir has been described as “human carnage.” According to Father Ismael Moreno, envío correspondent in Honduras, “The preliminary official version of events was that it was a pitched battle between mareros [as youth gang members are known in Honduras] and prison guards. But no guards were killed or even injured.” He adds that “sixty-one of the dead, at least half of whose bodies were completely burnt, were members of the Mara 18 youth gang; five were prisoners unconnected to any youth gangs; and three were female visitors, one of them a minor. All of the injured were mareros.” Interviews with survivors led Moreno to conclude that “the police had decided to wipe out all of the mareros and turned a blind eye as non-gang inmates took up machetes and knives and cut up the gang members inside the cell. All the weapons used by both the mareros and other inmates were already inside the prison, smuggled in thanks to the corruption of the police and those immediately responsible for running the prison.”

The San Pedro Sula fire

In May of 2004, there was another fire, this time in the San Pedro Sula prison, in which 107 prisoners perished, the majority of whom had ties to the MS13 mara, or youth gang. The images of their charred bodies were widely published in the media, with the rows of cadavers appearing on both the front and back pages of one national newspaper.

The San Pedro case was also taken to the IACHR, which determined the State was responsible for these deaths and made a series of recommendations. When the State didn’t comply, the case was transferred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Honduran officials appeared before the court on February 28, 2012, and the next year a process called the “friendly solution” was finally achieved, with the State accepting its responsibility in the tragedy.

To these major tragic events must be added the constant “suspicious” deaths of individual prisoners in the country’s severely overcrowded prisons. The “prison bonfires” add to the atrocious scenario of a country with chilling statistics of daily violence, where the punishment -spectacle and horrible deaths appear to be becoming daily practice.

Empathy is at the
root of human rights

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.” The development of sensitivity and empathy has been fundamental to the emergence of the notion of human rights.

US historian Lynn Hunt describes a series of transformations that have occurred in the last two centuries in the domestic architecture, the spaces of socialization, the ways of representing the human figure, the value of individuality and the proliferation of literary texts. These transformations have been laying the foundation for long-lasting alterations of human attitudes that are crucial to the appearance of new sensibilities, at the same time generating new and profound forms of empathy.

In Hunt’s analyses, incineration employed as a form of punishment dates way back in the history of humanity, used in some places even up to the early 19th century. She points out that the person burned was seen as a type of sacrificial victim whose suffering would return tranquility to the community and order to the State. In the 20th century the Nazi genocide evokes bonfires. We can’t think of Auschwitz and other extermination camps without imagining smoke…
The discovery of the horror that occurred in these camps apparently produced an explosion of empathy that, according to various authors, was the final spark that led to the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once the Second World War had ended.

Prison fires are a
dissociation of empathy

How can the seemingly indifferent reactions of Honduran society to the prison fires be explained using this backdrop? That social reaction, which I propose to call “dissociation of empathy,” has come to be like an “applause” for deaths interpreted as a healing purge.

It’s a reaction much like we frequently encounter in response to other systematic killings of youths supposedly connected to the maras or to organized crime, a daily occurrence in the country for more than
a decade. It’s similar as well to the more recent phenomenon of “encostalados”—cadavers wrapped in sacks and thrown in any empty lot—and to apathy toward other cruel death scenes produced by organized crime. Is this the new camouflage for death squads? In any event, the result is a society imprisoned or kidnapped by fear.

A society imprisoned by fear

Le Peur en Occident (Fear in the West), by French historian Jean Delumeau, is a classic text to study the culture of fear. More recently Mexican researcher María José Rodríguez Rojas, who analyzes the fear in Mexico’s violent situation today, states that “all scenes of destabilization and war require both a justification and social control mechanisms that make them acceptable, which would also be true in the inverse… The threat is transformed into a sensation of insecurity regarding the ‘other’ that triggers the fear.”

According to Delumeau, war contexts generate angst, a natural phenomenon that was the evolutionary motor of humanity and is positive when we foresee threats, stimulating our flight mechanism. But he also wrote that a very prolonged situation of fear “can create a state of disorientation and poor adaptation, an emotional blindness, a dangerous proliferation of the imaginary that unleashes a regressive mechanism due to an internal climate of insecurity.”

In a scenario such as the one we’re experiencing in Honduras today, empathy and sensitivity, fundamental to identifying the other as a bearer of human rights, give way to fear and anxiety that overpower society. This leads, as Rodríguez explains, to “the average citizen demanding the reestablishment of security conditions
even though it also means accepting the violence of the State.”

In today’s setting, the mass media play a fundamental role in installing in society not just a dissociation of empathy but also generalized fear. The phrase “I will do what I have to do,” repeated by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández during the 2012 electoral campaign and made into his “security policy” since occupying the presidency, appears to be socially justified.

The “threatening enemy”

Contemporary fear in our region iwas installed in large measure by the threats US security policy identified with Latin America. In the last fifty years Honduras has participated in the fear from these threats. The “Communist threat,” fear of the “baby-eaters” was the justification used for the National Security Doctrine in the 1970s and 80s, bringing persecutions, torture, kidnappings, death squads, political assassinations and unrelenting social control by repressive state organs as the response to that supposed threat. These seemed to disappear in the 90s in an international context of détente, the signing of the peace accords that put an end to the civil wars in Central America, and the fall of the European socialist bloc.

A new threatening enemy wasted no time in bursting onto the scene when the United States inaugurated its “war on drugs” in our hemisphere, with its high point in the hunt for and later killing of Pablo Escobar in Colombia. In Honduras, this threatening enemy appeared with the emergence of the maras, at first made up of youth emigrants returning from the United States who reproduced in Honduran neighborhoods the territorial structures and violent associations they had experienced in the streets and neighborhoods of the United States.

Mareros, drug traffickers
and organized crime

By the end of the 20th century, the mareros were becoming the greatest threat to citizen security in Honduras. Today, they’re public enemy number one.

In 2002, the Anti-Mara Law was decreed, authorizing expedited procedures to detain youth suspected of unlawful association. Having a tattoo soon became sufficient evidence for suspicion and detention. Charges of the existence of death squads reappeared and cadavers of executed mara members proliferated in the barrios. Less than a year later the San Pedro Sula prison fire occurred.

The war against drug trafficking in the Caribbean Sea led to the creation of new routes, with the Central American land corridor becoming the main route to the important US consumer market. Although the presence of drug trafficking in Honduras can easily be traced back to the 70s with the murder of the Ferrari couple in 1978, it was in the 2000-2005 period that the cartels in our country diversified and the violent confrontations for territorial control began.

By the middle of that decade terror was fully installed in Honduran society with the Mara members identified as the greatest threat. At the end of the decade, the threat underwent a reconfiguration that amplified it: today the threat is organized crime, with drug trafficking only one component. This threat is real, as is its exploitation for shady political, economic and geostrategic purposes.

The media lynchings
dehumanize the victims

With the threat in place, terror has been installed as the element that dissociates empathy, with its maximum expression seen in the easy assimilation of all the many cruel and abominable deaths in which the victims aren’t considered victims. Dehumanizing them has a very long tradition. Are indigenous peoples human? was a question the Spanish conquerors asked. Today’s question has the same root: Are mareros human?

Victims are dehumanized so the damage inflicted can be assimilated better or even justified. This empathic dissociation has found renewed expressions with the murder of children, such as that of 14-year-old Merelyn Abigail Espinoza last year and 13-year-old Soad Nicole Bustillo this year. These are not isolated cases; they are representative of the crimes against dozens of boys and girls criminalized and murdered in Honduras.

The media coverage of these two murders was extensive and controversial. Somehow their deaths were “legitimized” by covering the victims with a mantel of suspicion: “They were problem girls,” “They were following bad footsteps,” “Were they the girlfriends of mareros?”… Particularly despicable were the declarations of the education minister, who when referring to the murder of Soad Bustillo, having done nothing more than participate in various student protests, let fly a string of justifying doubts: “Was Soad problematic? Was she a marera? Was she a rebel?” The doubt was instilled almost as a certainty, which permitted society to dissociate their empathy. The dead girls were killed anew in the media bonfire.

Amnesia and insensitivity

Years have gone by and the prisoners who burned to death in the prisons have been forgotten by a society that suffers not only from dissociation of empathy, but also from amnesia when the victims belong to the most marginalized and impoverished social sectors. The charred bodies of Comayagua only exist in the memory of their family members and on the agenda of the human rights organizations. The case was declared “accidental” and seems to be closed. Its initial impact was rapidly pushed out of people’s mind.

And with it the profound crisis of Honduras’ penitentiary system blurs and becomes diluted. Inmates are guarded, punished and burned and otherwise killed in its prisons, not just in the three cases mentioned above, but also in others. As Father Moreno tallied in his January 2006 envoi article, “According to the National Human Rights Commissioner’s annual report, there were 89 deaths in penal centers in 2003 and 155 deaths and 5 disappearances in 2004. In 2005, there were 13 deaths as of May 9 in the National Penitentiary alone…. The toll of bloody events in the prisons is even heavier when one adds disturbances and events related to the appalling infrastructure conditions in most prisons. These include fires that razed the prisons of Santa Barbara and Copán and partially destroyed the one in Trujillo; riots in the Danlí and Olanchito jails and attempted rebellion in those of Tela and Gracias a Dios; similar incidents in late 1998 in Tegucigalpa and in 2000 in San Pedro Sula; a conflict that left 1 dead and 11 injured in the Támara Penitentiary in July 2003; 2 dead and 9 injured in the Tela prison center in March 2003; and the deaths reported in the Choluteca penal center in May 2002.”

Has purifying fire regained validity? The mass media coverage is more Dantesque each time. Girls and boys are murdered and their bodies burned in the guilt-cleansing media bonfires. Questioning the moral rectitude of the victims mitigates the horror in this country, whipped up by so much violence and so much economic uncertainty, all of which feeds fears, which in turn feed them, in a vicious cycle that deepens the dissociation.

They want to make us insensitive. They need us to be insensitive. It’s a perverse mechanism we’ve accepted because it’s also a defense mechanism to survive the horror.

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