Pacheco Teruel et al. v Honduras (IACHR)

Geographical Area
Central America
Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)
Case Name
Pacheco Teruel et al. v Honduras
Case Reference
Serie C No. 241
Name of Court
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Key Facts
On 17 May 2004, 107 prisoners were killed in San Pedro Pula Prison due to structural deficiencies of which the authorities were aware. The prisoners were members of the ‘Mara Salvatrucha’ (MS-13) gang and were isolated from the other prisoners in an unsafe cell.

The prison had a capacity of 1,500 but at the time contained 2,000 prisoners. Living conditions in the prison were described as ‘deplorable’ – the cell housing 183 ‘mara’ prisoners had only one entrance, no ventilation, no natural light and no fire extinguishers. Additionally, access to food, water and medical services was inadequate.

According to prison officials, the prison lacked adequate mechanisms to prevent and deal with fires, and the only instructions concerning emergency situations issued by the prison authorities was to fire a shot at the floor as a warning signal and, in case of fire, to call the fire department. An inmate was in charge of the electrical systems, which was considered a ‘latent risk of fire.’ This risk was acknowledged by the prison director who requested ‘collaboration to try to improve or correct the electrical system within the prison.’

When the fire broke out on 17 May, the guards did not immediately open the door, but fired several warning shots into the cell. The prisoners used a cement weight to open the gate of the cell. At least 101 prisoners died due to inhalation of carbon dioxide and 5 died in hospital with severe burns.
Decision and Reasoning
The Court held that Honduras was in violation of Article 4(1) (prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of life) of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. The State acknowledged responsibility as the victims died as a result of ‘a series of omissions by the authorities, and the authorities’ negligence in preventing the fire.’

The State was also in violation of Articles 5(1) (right to physical, mental and moral integrity) and 5(2) (prohibition of torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment). The victims ‘were incarcerated under conditions that constituted cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment’ including the lack of ventilation and natural light and the inadequate provision of food and water. The electrical system in the prison which led to the fire was dangerous and there was no system in place to deal with an outbreak of fire. Furthermore, the prisoners were not released from the cell as soon as the fire broke out, so they were trapped for an hour.

The State violated Article 5(6) (detention must aim to reform and rehabilitate) as there were no provisions for productive activities.

With respect to 22 prisoners, the State violated Article 5(4) (right of accused to be segregated from convicted persons). These 22 prisoners awaiting pre-trial detention were detained with those who had been convicted.

Furthermore, the State was in violation of Articles 8 (right to a fair trial) and 25 (right to judicial protection). At the time of the judgment, seven years after the incident, the State had not assigned responsibility for the fire. Therefore, the next of kin of the victims did not receive an effective remedy to determine what happened.
The State of Honduras must make a Non-Repetition Guarantee by implementing measures to ‘ensure the fundamental rights of prisoners and prevent fires in different prisons.’

The State must adopt legislative measures and ensure they comply with Articles 7, 9 and 24 of the American Convention.

Additionally, the State must ensure training for prison officials and develop emergency and evacuation plans in the event of a fire or other disaster.

The next of kin must also be provided with free medical, psychiatric or psychological treatment.

The State must conduct a fair an impartial investigation into the events and publicly acknowledge responsibility.
This case law summary was developed as part of the Disaster Law Database (DISLAW) project, and is not an official record of the case.