At least 29 prisoners were killed and 19 police wounded in clashes at a jail in western Venezuela on Friday, authorities said.
The incident at the police station jail in the town of Acarigua, in Portuguesa state, occurred when police special forces (FAES) tried to stop a “massive prison break”, which resulted in the deaths of 29 inmates, according to Portuguesa public security secretary Oscar Valero.
The prisoners received the officers with “a hail of gunfire” while detonating three grenades, which injured 19 police, Valero told reporters.
The Una Ventana a la Libertad NGO, which defends prisoner rights, gave a preliminary toll of 25 dead.
NGO director Carlos Nieto said the clashes broke out when the FAES attempted to rescue visitors who had been taken hostage on Thursday by the “pran” – the leader of the inmates – at the jail.
“This morning (authorities) sent the FAES and there was a clash. The detainees had weapons, they shot at the police. Apparently they also detonated two grenades,” Nieto told AFP news agency.
The inmates’ leader, Wilfredo Ramos, was among those killed, according to an internal police report.
The report, quoted by the NGO, said several officers were wounded by “shrapnel and explosives”.
The prisons ministry did not comment on the incident, saying police station jails were not under its control.
A video shared on social media shows an inmate – believed to be Ramos – with his face partly covered while brandishing a pistol and what appears to be grenades, threatening two women.
“It’s our lives (on the line) and those of the visitors here,” he said, as a woman pleaded for help, while warning the police to stay out because “I’m prepared to die”.
Nieto said the inmates were demanding “food and to be transferred to prisons,” and had denounced police “abuses”.
No information was given about the fate of the hostages.
Inmates are supposed to be held for a maximum of 48 hours in facilities such as the police jail, Una Ventana a la Libertad said.
There are around 500 of them in the country, holding 55,000 people even though their total capacity is just 8,000, the NGO added.
The Acarigua jail has a capacity for 60 inmates but was holding 500, according to the police report.
These provisional detention centres “are not suitable to hold inmates for more than 48 hours”, Nieto said.
He said the prison system as a whole was “chaotic” and blamed the prisons ministry for “not fulfilling its functions”.
Venezuela has one of the worst records for prison violence in South America.
In March 2018, 68 inmates died in a fire at a police jail in the northern city of Valencia.
And in August 2017, a riot at a facility in the southern Amazonas state left 37 prisoners dead.
More than 400 people are believed to have been killed in Venezuelan jails since 2011, while human rights organisations also say they face a lack of food and medicines – like much of the country – while the facilities are beset by corruption.
“For how long are Venezuelan prisoners in the state’s hands going to die?” said Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prisoners Observatory NGO, who branded Friday’s events a “massacre.”
“We have this situation because those responsible are converting these cells into dungeons,” Prado said in a video posted on Twitter. “Prisoners in Venezuela will continue to die unless something is done.”