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Questionable Prison Fires in Honduras, As Bush Prepares to Sign CAFTA 

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Tom Hayden reports from Honduras on the connections between the signing of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, a prison fire that left 100 alleged gang members dead and Rudy Giuliani. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration has scheduled a signing ceremony today with five countries in Central America that are party to CAFTA, Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The Central American deal faces heavy opposition in Congress from Democrats who contend it doesn’t provide enough protection for U-S labor and environmental rights. Among the countries participating in CAFTA is Honduras. But as CAFTA is signed scrutiny is being focused on a mysterious series of prison fires in Honduras that on the surface may not appear to have any relation to the trade agreement being aggressively promoted by the Bush administration.

On this May 17, over 100 alleged gang members were burned to death in a fire in an over-crowded Honduran prison. Surviving inmates claimed that it took two hours for help to arrive, and that guards were shooting at inmates trying to escape. The prison was designed for 800 inmates but held over 2,000.

Just over one year ago, in April 2003, 68 alleged gang members died in another prison fire in Honduras. At first prison officials blamed the inmates, but an independent commission concluded that 51 prisoners were executed by police, and that the killings were covered up.

US complicity, and especially that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is being raised by critics as well. Not only did the US run its Contra wars from Honduras, it supported a regime that killed and tortured many citizens, including prisoners, according to a 1998 report by the CIA itself.

Enter the Manhattan Institute, the conservative think tank, and the Giuliani Group, formed to export the ideas of New York’s hard-line “zero tolerance” campaign against street people to Latin America. The Manhattan Institute takes credit for advising the president of Honduras as has the Giuliani Group whose advisors visited Tegucigalpa. We go now to Honduras.

  • Tom Hayden, former California State Senator. His latest book is called Steet Warz: Gangs and the Future of Violence. He is in Tegucilgapa, Honduras investigating a series of mysterious prison fires at gang wards within the prisons.
  • Alfredo Diaz, a member of Casa Alianza, which works with street children in Honduras. The group is part of the commission that is investigating the prison fires.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Honduras. Tom Hayden is there, former California state senator. His latest book is called, “Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence.” He’s in Teguciagalpa investigating the mysterious prison fires and gang wars within the prisons. Can you lay out what you understand to be happening in Honduras, Tom Hayden?

TOM HAYDEN: Good morning, Amy. Yes, as you said on May 17, there was a fire in cell block 19 of a particular prison. It was the only fire in which there was a cell block. The only cell block. There were dangerous conditions there. There were four air conditioners. There were 57 ventilators, all of this in a 10 by 15 yard cell. The fire broke out in the middle of the night. It took 45 minutes for the firefighters to come. Shots were fired. There were delays in opening the gates. 10 officers have been suspended. A new commission has been appointed to look into it. Survivors say it was intentional. At the very least, it was another case of death through preventible negligence. It’s raised the specter of a second massacre similar to the one last April that you noted at El Porvenir, where at first prisoners were portrayed as rioting and causing the fire themselves, but a later investigation showed that 51 were executed by security forces.

The role of the Giuliani Group has been clear, and this may be an example of the New York policing model gone wild. The president here, President Maduro, campaigned on a New York “zero tolerance” platform. He adopted a new law in 2003 that criminalizes gang membership or gang identity, not specific crimes. Kids can get up to 12 years for membership. There are hundreds and hundreds of kids who are detained— the vast majority of people in the overcrowded prisons are detainees awaiting trial. What this has to do with CAFTA on this morning of the beginning of CAFTA, is universally the reason given for this sweep of street children and gang members and the fires that seem to come from these policies is that the investment climate here has to be promoted. They’re rounding up gang members in other words, to make Honduras safe for sweatshops, even though about 80% of the population in this country are poor. 4-500,000 children now work illegally. So, that’s the story, Amy. I have with me Alfredo Diaz who represents an organization that tries to care for street children, Casa Alianza, which has done monitoring of what they call extra judicial killings of hundreds and hundreds of kids over the past five years. Some are done by security forces, some by death squads, some interpersonal violence in a situation that is clearly just out of control here in Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hayden before we go to Alfredo Diaz, the question of how the Giuliani Group works with the Manhattan Institute. What is the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, have to do with this?

TOM HAYDEN: The Manhattan Institute is the organization that is based in New York that is associated with “broken windows” policing and with “zero tolerance” measures, and with the Giuliani program in New York, which was quite popular with middle class New Yorkers, on the other hand antagonized inner city residents because of the hundreds of thousands of young people who were arrested on— or picked up on “stop and frisk” charges only to be let go, and the— in the 1990’s, they became a consulting firm separate and apart from the Giuliani Group, but the Hondurans have visited both the Manhattan Institute for advice, and the Giuliani staff has been here in Honduras consulting, as they have tried to export the New York City model to Latin America. And whatever you think of impact in New York City, here in Honduras you have a country that’s just emerging from a military period under Mr. Negroponte, as you pointed out during the Contra Wars, a very fragile society. There’s massive unemployment. There’s very little civil society or courtroom mechanisms. There’s nothing in the way of checks and balances to prevent these sweeps and these crackdowns from— you know, going to extraordinary extremes.

AMY GOODMAN: You have been to the U.S. Embassy, spoken with officials there. Have you raised the issue of the Giuliani Group, the Manhattan Institute, and has the former mayor himself been in Teguciagalpa?

TOM HAYDEN: I don’t think Giuliani himself — although he has a $4.3 million contract to bring law and order to Mexico. However, advisers and staff from the Giuliani Group were here a couple of years ago with great fanfare.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you say Mexico or Honduras?

TOM HAYDEN: They were here in Honduras. Giuliani has a contract for Mexico. They came to Honduras for a time period. There was great fanfare. The president had already campaigned on this “zero tolerance” platform, and that’s essentially the linkage. Also, the Hondurans have been in New York meeting with the Manhattan Institute.

AMY GOODMAN: Alfredo Diaz is a member of Casa Alianza, which works with street children in Honduras. The group is part of the commision investigating the prison fires. What have you found at this point?

ALFREDO DIAZ: At least nothing, because even though we are in the commission, we are waiting for the people who are going to make this research, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the greatest threat to street children now in Honduras?

ALFREDO DIAZ: Well, as a Casa Alianza member, we work for the interests of the kids. At this time, we are so worried about the problems that we have in Honduras, that many of the kids who live on the streets they are worried about these anti-gang laws, because even though they are not gang members, just because they have a tattoo on their body, the people are getting them into jail. So, they’re afraid of living on the streets. Casa Alianza is trying to work with them and give them a better life and change their minds. So, in that way we can get nice kids, nice adults and any person who is going to attend that society, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Have you had dealings with the Giuliani Group or the Manhattan Institute?

ALFREDO DIAZ: No, no, no, no, no. Not me.

TOM HAYDEN: Amy, Casa Alianza investigators have collected information on 1,248 kids killed between 1998 and this past year. 725 of them were 18 or younger. 10 or 20% were killed by security forces for, or by vigilantes in cars with tinted windows.

ALFREDO DIAZ: Yes. Right now, we have like — in five years, 2,500 kids, people who have been killed, you know? And even Honduras has not — hasn’t paid attention to this point. We have many cases in the international court, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. We will certainly continue to follow this story. Alfredo Diaz, a member of Casa Alianza, working with street children in Honduras and Tom Hayden, former California state senator. His latest book is, “Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence,” in Teguciagalpa, Honduras right now. This is Democracy Now!

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