Latin America: where clubbing can be deadly



A firefighter inspects the discotheque after a fire in which 194 people died on Dec. 31, 2004 in Buenos Aires.


Pablo Cuarterolo

LIMA, Peru — Sunday morning’s horrific fire in the Kiss nightclub in Santa Maria, Brazil, stands out for its high death toll — more than 230 at the latest count.

Sadly, though, such deadly — and entirely avoidable — blazes are hardly unknown in Latin America.

In the last decade or so, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima and Mexico City have all seen double-digit fatalities as packed discos have filled with smoke and flames in a matter of moments.

The full facts surrounding the Santa Maria inferno have yet to be established. Police arrested three people and Brazil's O Globo newspaper said a fourth person surrendered to police Monday.

But routine flouting of health and safety laws is a common thread in the region’s previous tragedies, and one that’s highly suspected to be part of the cause of the latest fire.

In October 2000, 22 revelers died in the Lobohombo nightclub in the Mexican capital after a short-circuit in lighting equipment.

In the chaos, bouncers at the door initially refused to let customers flee without paying for their drinks first.

It subsequently emerged that Lobohombo only had a permit to open as a restaurant rather than a club, had three times its legal capacity of 1,000 customers inside at the time of the accident, and had previously been closed down numerous times for code violations.

Owner Alejandro Iglesias Rebollo, known as Mexico City’s “King of Underground Bars,” was never brought to justice over the tragedy.

At the time of the tragedy, some 15,000 establishments across Mexico were failing to comply with health and safety and other laws, according to the country’s National Association of Discos and Bars.

In July 2002, the disco Utopia, in Peru’s capital city of Lima, erupted in flames, killing 29 partiers, after a display with lights and fire by the bartender went drastically wrong.

Investigators discovered a long list of irregularities at Utopia. For starters, there wasn’t a single fire extinguisher in the venue.

The bartender, Roberto Ferreyros, and nightclub manager Percy North have both served time behind bars on manslaughter and other charges.

Less than six months later, in December 2002, 47 people died in a fire in the La Guajira nightclub in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Investigators said it lacked clearly signed and wide enough emergency exits.

Yet the most similar incident to the Kiss tragedy — both in outsized death toll and apparent cause — was the blaze during a rock concert at the Cromanon club in Buenos Aires in December 2004.

In total, 194 people were killed when the Cromanon caught fire after a member of the band, Callejeros, lit a firework from the stage — a common event at underground rock shows in the region.

All seven members of the band, who had been in charge of security at their own show, were found guilty of causing the deaths.

Investigators discovered that Cromanon had been operating legally despite — yet again — not having fire extinguishers. The scandal led to Buenos Aires Mayor Anibal Ibarra losing his job for overseeing health and safety policy failures in the Argentine capital.

Fernando Blanco, president of the Consumers Union of Argentina, blamed the tragedies on corruption.

"There is a common theme here, which is the failure of the state to enforce safety laws," he told GlobalPost. "In many of these cases, the nightclubs are part of a network of corruption and could not operate in violation of the law without at least some public officials turning a blind eye.

"That is what happened at Cromanon. The law is not the problem, at least not in Argentina. The laws are already there."

Blanco added, "When a consumer buys a ticket for one of these clubs or shows, of course they have a right to presume that they will be safe and that the venue complies with health and safety laws."

More from GlobalPost: Photos, video and reporting on Brazil's nightclub fire