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Deadly Prison Fire Brings Chile Back To Reality After Triumphant Miners' Rescue

Blaze in overcrowded facility kills 81, marking unofficial end to national (and global) celebration of rescue of Chilean miners

No good news lately for Chilean President Sebastian Piñera (rt), who'd basked in October's rescue (Photo: Hugo Infante, govt of Chile)


Just two months after Chile basked in the storybook rescue of 33 trapped Chileans miners, a deadly fire at an overcrowded Santiago prison has brought one of the country's harshest realities back into focus.

President Sebastián Piñera's government is now facing international pressure to ease overcrowding and allow human rights officials to investigate the conditions inside the country's penitentiaries after Wednesday's fire left 81 inmates dead, and 21 others injured.

Forensic experts say they have so far identified more than half of the inmates who were burned to death after the fire broke out at San Miguel prison in Santiago.

Authorities have had a difficult time in identifying the victims because they were so badly burned inside the cells where they were trapped. "We are going to keep on working non-stop, with shifts into the night, to identify all of the 81 who died," Justice Minister Felipe Bulnes was quoted in Santiago daily El Mercurio.

Amateur video footage from mobile phones that can be seen on Radio Cooperativa Santiago's website showed inmates waving and screaming from their prison cell windows to loved ones who were gathered outside the smoking facility as firefighters and prison officials worked to contain the blaze. With a capacity for 1,000 inmates, there were reportedly 1,900 prisoners inside San Miguel the morning of the fire.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay asked the Piñera government to give experts "carte blanche" to go inside the prisons to inspect conditions. "After this tragedy, our priority is to ensure that the government investigate not just this one but all the prisons in Chile," Pillay said at a news conference in Geneva on Thursday.

Chile's prisons have poor sanitation and ventilation and sometimes lack potable water. Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that incident at San Miguel was the result of two longstanding problems in Chile's prison system – overcrowding and poor conditions. "It is critically important for the Chilean government to make overhauling the prison system a priority," he said.

Just hours after the tragedy, President Piñera acknowledged that conditions inside Chile's prison are "inhumane." and pledged to focus on improving the facilities.

Alejandro Peña, a prosecutor who is leading the investigation, said that survivors reported that a number of fights had broken out between inmates before the fire began at around 5:45am. According to El Mercurio, there were only four prison guards on duty that morning, which made it difficult for them to break up the fights before the blaze was started. Security officials have reportedly always complained about a lack of personnel. When night falls, the inmates are locked inside their overcrowded cells and stay there until the next day; and if there are any incidents, it is difficult for guards to intervene.

According to witnesses, the fire was started when an inmate identified as "el aguja" (the needle) wanted to settle a score with a rival group of prisoners using a crude flame-thrower made from a plastic tube and a gas-filled ball. The flames reached the inmates' mattresses and within three minutes the blaze spread uncontrollably, authorities say.

Wednesday's tragedy has cast a negative image on the Piñera administration, which in October was globally applauded for leading a heroic rescue of the 33 miners who had been trapped for 70 days inside a collapsed mine in northern Chile. After that incident, Piñera also announced immediate reforms to the mining industry, including introducing stricter safety regulations.

Radio Cooperativa reported that the families of some the dead inmates announced that they will be presenting a lawsuit on Friday against the government. "Why didn't they rescue my son," said a sobbing Eloísa Miranda, whose son was serving a five-year sentence at San Miguel. "The only thing I ask is for pity for me, my granddaughter and my daughter-in-law. We are all alone."

Martin Delfín


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