A massive fire that erupted last month at a prison in Honduras left 360 inmates dead—including one man from Los Angeles that was accidentally deported in October. The fire was the largest and worst prison fire in Latin American history
KPCC’s Ruxandra Guidi with more details: > Nelson Avila-Lopez came to Los Angeles when he was 16. Gang members in his native Honduras had been trying to recruit him for years, so he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in order to be reunited with his mother, who was living in Los Angeles.
But Avila-Lopez could not escape the gang affiliation nor his illegal status, and last September, by then 20 years old, he was detained by U.S. federal immigration authorities and processed for deportation. Avila-Lopez’s lawyer, warning that his client could face harm if he was returned to Honduras, filed an emergency motion to suspend the deportation. On Sept. 30, an immigration judge granted Avila-Lopez a “stay” — a temporary reprieve to his deportation, pending further review of his case.
“We then took that order, sent it in to the deportation officer that was in charge of his deportation, talked to him over the phone, confirmed that he received the order and that he wasn’t going to send him out,” said Joseph Huprich, Avila-Lopez’s attorney, who does pro bono work for Honduran immigrants in Los Angeles. “That was the last thing that we heard until we got a call from the mother saying ‘He was just sent out last night.’”
On Oct. 19, 2011, two-and-a-half weeks after the immigration court had halted his deportation, Avila-Lopez was taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Arizona. The next day he was sent back to Honduras.
But because Avila-Lopez had been suspected of gang involvement in his home country, he was immediately jailed at the Comayagua Prison. His lawyers were trying to get him released when the fire erupted on February 14, 2012.
Firefighters called to the blaze said they could not get the prisoners out because they could not find guards who had the keys to the cells.
A government report obtained by AP news agency said there were about 800 prisoners in the Comayagua jail which was built for 500. Similar reports also say there were only 6 guards on duty.
ICE said in a statement that the deportation was probably the result of a breakdown in communication between the agency and the immigration court. ICE officials said they weren’t notified of the judge’s stay until the day after Lopez was back in Honduras.
But the Department of Justice told KPCC that it sent ICE the court documents in a timely manner.