Police are responsible for about a fifth of all crime in Venezuela, where cases of brutality remain rife [EPA]

Two police officers were arrested for links with the deaths of three prisoners in a case that brings to light overcrowded jails and violence by security forces in the South American nation.

The arrests on Thursday were connected to two men who were found dead in a police station cell in Caracas, Venezuela's capital city, while another passed away en route to a clinic.

The detectives, now held by the Venezuelan state, are suspected of treating cruel treatment of prisoners, denying them help and breaking international penal treaties, the attorney general's office said.

"They were arrested for their presumed involvement in the death of three detainees," it said in a statement.

A forensic report indicated the men had been mistreated but probably died from suffocation in overcrowded conditions.

Local newspaper Ultimas Noticias, which some associate with the government but is always packed with Venezuelans' denunciations of injustice, quoted a witness this week as saying the prisoners had been tortured.

Although Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has announced numerous police shake-ups during his 12-year rule, cases of brutality and extrajudicial killings remain rife, rights groups say.

Official data show police are responsible for about a fifth of all crimes in Venezuela, something Chavez has vowed to combat via the establishment of a new National Police force.

Last month, 11 policemen in the wealthy and opposition-run district of Chacao in Caracas were suspended after being caught on camera beating and kicking prisoners.

Tareck El Aissami, the interior minister, denounced the death of the prisoners in the case leading to Thursday's arrests.

"[Venezuela's] Bolivarian government rejects any act against the sacred principle of life," he said.

Meanwhile, economic reports say that Venezuela's annual inflation rate has slowed in the past month, and now stands at 22.8 per cent.

Venezuela has had Latin America's worst inflation over the past five years. Last year it was at 27.2 per cent.

Even with the lower rate, it remains the highest in the region.

Source: Agencies