Deadly Chile prison fire puts heat on Latin America's crowded jails
The Chile fire, started by rioting prisoners, has drawn fresh attention to the poor conditions, lack of guards, and gang violence rampant in Latin American jails.
Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City
On the morning of Dec. 8, 81 inmates at the San Miguel prison in Santiago died when rioting prisoners set their overcrowded penitentiary ablaze. Among the victims: one young man serving a 61-day sentence for selling pirated CDs.Skip to next paragraph
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The tragedy, the worst in Chile’s recent history, startled a nation that was still celebrating the no-holds-barred rescue of 33 trapped miners in October. But prison riots, gang violence, poor living conditions, and corruption run rampant in jails across Latin America.
Last month, a riot in a northern Brazil prison left 18 dead. Two days later, a fire in a juvenile prison in El Salvador killed at least 16. In one of the more notorious cases, this summer in northern Mexican prison guards were accused of letting out imprisoned gang members, even lending them official guns and cars, to carry out an execution at a nearby party of rivals.
Many critics say prison conditions are a time bomb in Latin America, with space growing tighter as prison populations grow, leaving fewer guards to organize systems inside. Drug laws and the use of preventive jail, they say, have also exacerbated the problem. The tragedy in Chile has leaders and human rights organizations calling for immediate reform, while casting a spotlight on subpar conditions across the region.
“The fire was just the visualization of an endemic problem that hasn’t been looked at. It hadn’t been sufficiently detected and denounced,” says Chilean national public defender Paula Vial.
The debate over prison reform in Chile comes as the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released a report on overcrowding in prisons in eight Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. The report argues that one contributing factor to crowded conditions is drug policy, which punishes low-level traffickers while doing little to stem drug use or trafficking.
In Brazil’s notorious system, for example, the prison population has doubled to more than 473,000 people from 2000 to 2009. Five years ago, the number of those in jail for drug trafficking represented 10 percent of prisoners. Today that has doubled to nearly 20 percent.
In Mexico, the jailed population nearly doubled from 1998 to 2008, to 219,752 prisoners. That comes as Mexico wages a battle against drug traffickers under the administration of President Felipe Calderón.
But even as Mexico has pushed through judicial reform and even decriminalized some personal drug use, it still contends with a problem common throughout Latin America: the use of preventive jail. Of 226,667 drug-related detentions from 2006 to 2009, only 51,282 faced trial, and of those, 33,500 were convicted, according to the report.