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Honduras: the challenges of identifying the victims of the Comayagua prison fire

14-03-2012 Interview

In the wake of the fire that broke out at Comayagua prison in Honduras on 14 February, in which more than 360 people died, the ICRC has been supporting the national authorities' efforts to identify the victims using forensics and to offer psychological support to their families. In this interview, Alejandra Jiménez, the ICRC's forensic adviser in Mexico, describes the challenges and achievements of her assignment in Honduras.

What is the humanitarian situation one month on from the Comayagua fire?

Because there were so many victims, many of whose remains are unrecognizable, the identification process is very complicated and lengthy. For the families waiting for the bodies of their loved ones to be released so they can honour them and say their goodbyes, the wait is extremely distressing. The main humanitarian consequence today is the psychological impact on relatives who are having to wait to begin the mourning process.

What kind of support has the ICRC provided?

In the immediate aftermath, the ICRC donated essential items to deal with the remains of those killed in the fire, including body bags, surgical instruments, cameras and FTA paper for genetic identification. However, the ICRC focused mainly on providing technical advice to the Honduran government.

Two ICRC psychologists provided psychosocial support for relatives and for those responding to the disaster. Three forensic experts offered their assistance and made recommendations about what practices to adopt at the different stages of the response, from recovering the bodies to handing over and disposing of the remains. The ICRC was not directly involved in dealing with the remains, but it did offer guidance to the authorities on processing information about the victims, preserving the bodies and putting in place procedures in the forensic units.

As in many post-disaster situations, what was lacking was a suitable information-management system. The ICRC therefore donated a database that it has developed to organize, manage and consult all the information collected during the identification process. It also provided training in the use of this database.

How was psychological support organized and what was the ICRC's role?

The main challenge in these situations is communicating clearly and transparently with the families of the victims. If the authorities remain silent and fail to communicate with the families, this creates a psychological barrier, as though they are being cut off from their loved ones and the whole process.

This feeling of being kept in the dark is extremely distressing. In the case of Honduras, the families were afraid that their loved ones would be buried in a mass grave or that, without international help, the bodies would not be returned to them.

The ICRC advised both the government and forensic experts on establishing clear channels of communication with the families to explain what they could expect from the process, how long it might take, its limitations, and the complexities of identifying remains. The ICRC also stressed the importance of explaining forensic methods to the press, to make them aware of the tireless, rigorous work being carried out and to explain how information was being processed, thereby reassuring the families.

What are the main challenges today?

We have to adopt a short- and long-term approach. We need to maintain our support for, and dialogue with, the families whose loved ones have still not been identified. It is vital that all the information collected during the identification of the remains be entered into the database provided by the ICRC. A full analysis of this data then needs to be made.

The ICRC needs to rise to the expectations surrounding its role in Honduras, which will in turn pave the way for its involvement in addressing the country's humanitarian problems. The government has asked the ICRC to assess its current forensic capabilities and its forensic services nationwide in order to make practical recommendations.

Violence is rife in Honduras. Many bodies are still awaiting identification and, as a result, many families are anxious for news. In these circumstances, the ICRC is keen to cooperate with the authorities and to drive forward forensic development with a view to providing humanitarian assistance.


Photos

ICRC forensic expert Alejandra Jiménez helps forensic scientists to organize, classify, check and process the information collected. 

ICRC forensic expert Alejandra Jiménez helps forensic scientists to organize, classify, check and process the information collected.
© ICRC / A. Jiménez

A radiologist studies X-rays, looking for injuries, fractures, medical devices and other identifying marks. 

A radiologist studies X-rays, looking for injuries, fractures, medical devices and other identifying marks.
© ICRC / A. Jiménez

A forensic odontologist estimates the age of a victim from a tooth analysis. 

A forensic odontologist estimates the age of a victim from a tooth analysis.
© ICRC / A. Jiménez

Clothes help to identify remains and have sentimental value for the families. 

Clothes help to identify remains and have sentimental value for the families.
© ICRC / A. Jiménez

Experts analyse and compare fingerprints to identify the victims. 

Experts analyse and compare fingerprints to identify the victims.
© ICRC / A. Jiménez

Forensic experts work on identifying bodies in the morgue where the autopsies were performed. 

Forensic experts work on identifying bodies in the morgue where the autopsies were performed.
© ICRC / A. Jiménez