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Colombia prison fire kills at least 52, authorities say

A woman and child wait Tuesday to learn of an inmate's status after a deadly fire at a prison in Tuluá, Colombia. (Juan Jose Horta/AP)
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At least 51 people were killed and 26 injured in a prison fire in southwestern Colombia, officials said Tuesday.

The blaze spread after inmates set fire to mattresses during a riot early Monday, Tito Castellanos, director of the national prison system, told local media outlets.

The prison is a medium-security facility in the city of Tuluá, an industrial and commercial center in Colombia’s Cauca Valley. Families have gathered outside the facility to try to find out what happened to their loved ones inside.

“The preliminary information is that there was a fight between inmates,” Castellanos said, which developed into a full-fledged riot about 2 a.m.

About 1,200 people are housed in the prison, which is 17 percent over capacity, according to authorities.

Castellanos said the fire broke out in an area where at least 160 inmates were confined. The building was old and didn’t have the fire-suppression system needed for the number of people inside, he added.

Felipe José Tinoco Zapata, head of the nearby Tomás Uribe Uribe Hospital, said the first patients started arriving at 3 a.m. Fourteen arrived in that first wave, Tinoco said, and almost all were seriously injured.

“Nine of them were sent to the ICU, and two of them, with almost 100 percent of their bodies burned, were sent to Cali to a burn unit,” he said, referring to the larger city roughly 60 miles southwest of Tuluá.

President Iván Duque wrote on Twitter that he had ordered investigations to better understand the tragedy and that he stood in solidarity with the families of the victims.

Gustavo Petro, former guerrilla, will be Colombia’s first leftist president

President-elect Gustavo Petro said the government needs to reframe its prison policies. “The Colombian state has viewed prison as a space for revenge and not for rehabilitation,” he wrote on Twitter.

Petro, who will take office in August, pointed to past incidents that had led to the deaths of inmates in Colombia’s overcrowded prison system, including in 2020 at the country’s largest facility, La Modelo in Bogotá.

“What happened in Tuluá, like the massacre in La Modelo, forces a complete rethinking of prison policy,” Petro wrote.

In that incident, at least 23 prisoners were killed and 83 injured during protests over unsanitary conditions in their facility amid the coronavirus pandemic.