Venezuelan prison fire leaves nearly 70 people dead

Tragedy strikes after attempted prison break in Valencia, in Carabobo state, leading to deaths by asphyxia and burns.

Anguished relatives of at least 68 people killed in a riot and fire in the cells of a police station jail in the Venezuelan city of Valencia have gathered outside to demand explanations. 

A fire reportedly broke out at the detention centre after inmate began setting mattresses alight in an attempted jailbreak early on Wednesday morning, local news media reported.

Many reportedly died due to asphyxia and burns.

The public prosecutor put the number of people who died at 68, including two women who were visiting the police station in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state located 160km west of the capital, Caracas.

After the fire, many relatives positioned themselves outside the facility. The situation reportedly turned violent, and police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. 

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive,” said Aida Parra, a mother of an inmate. 

“They won’t give me any time updates or information.”

Poor conditions

At least 33,000 inmates in Venezuela are held in temporary police cells for lack of space in prisons in appalling conditions, said Al Jazeera’s Alessandro Rampietti, reporting from neighbouring Colombia.

He added that human rights advocates have long denounced the deteriorating conditions inmates face in Venezuelan prisons. 

“Half of the prisons approximately are actually in the hands of the inmates,” said Phil Gunson, senior analyst at International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera

“They’re run by prison gangs, and it’s the prison bosses who actually determine whether people can be transferred there or not,” he added.

“And as you imagine, with something like 300 percent overcrowding in police cells, people sleeping standing up in some cases, lack of food, medical attention, heat – people are truly desperate.”

The government of Carabobo said it had designated four prosecutors to begin reviewing exactly what happened – three at a regional level and one at state level.

Jesus Santander, secretary-general of Carabobo, confirmed that a police officer was shot following the fire.

Speaking on behalf of the local government, Santander also wished to “extend our solidarity to all of the families”.

A press statement released by the Carabobo government said that a “multidisciplinary team” has been dispensed to support family members “with the funeral services and the burial of the deceased inmates”.

Source: Al Jazeera