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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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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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