SANTIAGO – Ten years after a devastating fire killed 81 inmates at the San Miguel prison, a Santiago court ordered the state to compensate the families of the victims. In its historic ruling, the court ordered the state to pay a total of US$5 million. Details of the ruling expose a gruesome reality of the Chilean overcrowded prison system and prison guard negligence.
In a landmark ruling, a Santiago Civil Court has ordered the Chilean state to compensate the families of 81 victims of the devastating prison fire in San Miguel prison on Dec. 8, 2010. According to Judge Carolina Ramírez, prison guards obstructed the extinguishing of the fire, and the state should be held responsible for the fact that the prison facilities had no evacuation plan and held more than double the appropriate number of prisoners.
The compensations vary per family depending on what the judge called “moral damage” inflicted on the victims’ families and range between US$4,000 and US$200,000. One of the lawyers representing the families said, according to daily La Tercera, that “waiting 10 years is a long time for justice to be served to these families, many parents of these victims have already died.”
Judge Ramírez took into account that the families of the victims were kept in the dark for days about the identity of those who died. Several cases that stand out in the ruling give a grim insight into the deadliest prison accident in Chilean history.
Watch this segment from CNN Chile on the dramatic event:
Arrested For Bootlegging CDs
The cases of Bastián Arriagada and Óscar Arteaga Quincham are emblematic, as they paid with their lives because they couldn’t pay a simple fine. Arriagada was serving a short prison sentence as he was not able to pay the fine he received for selling bootlegged CDs. He would never leave the facilities alive: his family will receive US$60,000.
A similar amount will be paid to Arteaga’s family. He was at the end of his prison term, a term he was serving because he, too, was without the financial means to pay a fine. His mother was allowed to go see her son’s body only six days after the fire. “They showed her only charred bones, an image that she has not been able to erase, and for a long time she went looking for her son in different hospitals,” the ruling reads.
At the time of the fire, there were 1,900 prisoners with only approximately 30 prison guards. According to the court, the authorities never took measures to prevent overcrowding, and they are also responsible for the lack of evacuation measures. Although not included in the sentence, several prison guards also prevented firefighters from entering the facilities during the fire.
The fire started on Dec. 8, when two rival gangs started a fight. One inmate used a gas cylinder as a flame thrower, setting mattresses on fire. The fire spread quickly in Tower 5 of the facilities. Despite screams coming from the tower, prison guards did not alert firefighters until 30 minutes after the fire started. It took firefighters hours to stop the flames; in the end, 81 inmates died, and at least 14 others were severely injured.
In the hours after the fire, family members gathered outside to demand more information on the victim’s identities. The way the prison authorities and the state neglected these families in the hours and days after increased the families’ trauma, the court said. The state can appeal the ruling, but so far it’s not clear whether it will do so.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.