HIGUEY, Dominican Republic, March 7 -- Rival gangs battling over the drug trade in an overcrowded, vermin-infested prison set their bedding ablaze Monday and blocked the entrance to their cellblock, killing at least 134 inmates in one of Latin America's worst jailhouse blazes.
Some died in a stampede to escape the flames after guards forced open the jammed door in the cellblock known as Vietnam, one survivor said, while others were killed by smoke inhalation.
Only 26 prisoners were rescued from the jail in Higuey, 75 miles northeast of the capital on the eastern tip of the island, said National Police Chief Manuel de Jesus Perez Sanchez. Eighteen were injured.
The disaster underscored the terrible prison conditions in the Dominican Republic, which has the most overcrowded jails in the Western Hemisphere, according to U.N. figures.
Domingo Porfirio Rojas-Nina of the Dominican National Human Rights Commission said he had been complaining for years that the Higuey prison was "the worst in the country. It is hell on earth. It is unfit for human beings."
Officials gave varying figures for the prison population, with one saying the Vietnam cellblock held as many as 182 inmates.
Among the victims were four Americans from Puerto Rico convicted of cocaine trafficking. Two died and two were injured, officials said.
The violence began when one inmate shot and wounded another Sunday night and dozens of members of three gangs began fighting for control over drug and cigarette sales, said the national prison director, Gen. Ramon de la Cruz Martinez.