Argentina: 32 Prisoners Die in Mother's Day Fire

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, October 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Argentina: 32 Prisoners Die in Mother's Day Fire


An Oct. 16 blaze in a jail in Magdalena, Argentina, left 32 inmates dead and two jailers injured, leading to calls from family members and international human rights groups for clarification of what caused the fire. All the deaths appeared to have been caused by asphyxiation after inmates were overcome by smoke, although Justice Minister Eduardo Di Rocco of Buenos Aires province, where the prison is located, said some bodies also had knife wounds sustained during a fight. International human rights organizations have strongly criticized conditions that have put Argentine prisons into a "critical," overcrowded state.

Causes under investigation

Authorities said that a "very large fight" caused the episode in Magdalena, with Di Rocco saying inmates first began fighting just before midnight and then lit mattresses and blankets. The fire spread through one of several cellblocks in the sprawling prison in Magdalena, 72 km southeast of Buenos Aires.

Speaking on the prison grounds, Di Rocco added that it was unclear what caused the disturbance but he rejected initial reports that a demand for more visiting hours for relatives led up to the blaze.

Earlier there had been a protest at the prison demanding better conditions and longer visiting hours for Mother's Day (Oct. 16), but the authorities denied the fire was started as part of the protest. Visiting family members outside the prison, among them many mothers, scuffled with riot police as they demanded to know what happened to their relatives in the jail.

Di Rocco reported that the fire was contained to one unit known as Pavilion 16. He said the warden rushed to the scene and was critically injured by a blow to the head and had to be hospitalized along with a second jailer. During the fight, authorities said, a kitchen area and a workshop were torched.

Di Rocco had no information on survivors other than to say 16 others in the unit would be interrogated to determine the exact chain of events. He said forensic experts were trying to identify the dead.

OAS calls for review

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) said there were serious deficiencies in the Argentine penal system and called for a complete accounting of events leading to the 32 deaths. The IACHR presented a writ of collective habeas corpus in favor of the prisoners shortly after the fire, "taking into account the deplorable state of the installations" of the jail.

The commission urged the Argentine state to take the measures necessary to "guarantee the life and personal integrity" of the detainees in the jail system, just as it has for other detention centers around South America. The commission said Argentine authorities should guarantee that they will investigate and disclose the truth of what happened and sanction those responsible "avoiding that such events of violence and loss of human lives are repeated in the future."

The IACHR says it has received information that "the conditions of detention in some jails are critical" in Argentina. "The persistence of mistreatment, overpopulation, lack of attention to sanitation, grave deterioration and insufficiency of infrastructure, and lack of food" have been identified as factors that generate violations of human rights in Argentine detention centers. …

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