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Families demand answers after blaze kills at least 68 in overcrowded Venezuelan jail

Devastated family members seeking answers clashed with police March 28 after rioting and fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station killed at least 68. (Video: Reuters)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Families of 68 people, mostly prisoners, who were killed in a jail fire in Venezuela gathered outside the scene at a police station Thursday to demand answers, as opposition lawmakers pledged to investigate the tragedy.

A fire ripped through the detention center of a police headquarters west of Caracas on Wednesday morning as families waited outside for visiting hours to begin. As the flames and smoke engulfed the jail, frantic relatives clashed with police, who drove them back with tear gas.

Late Wednesday, the country’s head prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, announced a death toll of 68, including two women who were probably visitors. He promised an investigation to “clarify these dramatic events.” 

Local opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus said the tragedy was compounded by a wait for information. No one was allowed to see the bodies long after the fire had been extinguished in the city of Valencia in Carabobo state, about 100 miles west of the capital.

“Part of the drama is that there was no list of dead because many of the bodies were incinerated and it was impossible to recognize them,” he added. He said that by his count, 78 people had died.

The fire struck amid a historic economic and political crisis. Venezuela faces serious shortages of basic goods and bouts of unrest as the socialist government attempts to hold onto power.

The crisis, experts say, has worsened conditions in an already overcrowded system in which inmates lack food, water and medical care but drugs and guns are plentiful. Inmates have increasingly resorted to strikes to protest the situation.

Carlos Nieto Palma, director of the nonprofit prison watchdog group A Window to Freedom, said the blaze began after an attempted jailbreak failed and inmates set fire to their mattresses. The inmates immediately began to succumb to the heavy smoke.

“The fire caused so much smoke that people started to die in the enclosed space,” Nieto Palma said.

According to Matheus, at least 180 inmates were crammed into the detention center, far exceeding its capacity of 60.

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Nieto Palma said his sources told him that the deaths were all due to smoke inhalation and that the two women among the dead were there on conjugal visits.

Even as the smoke was choking the inmates, family members carrying food were outside waiting to visit. A few of the inmates managed to call family members on cellphones before succumbing to the smoke, said Tibisay Romero, a journalist and investigator for A Window to Freedom.

“When journalists and photographers started arriving, family members started to push at the police to enter, and they threw rocks at the policemen,” she said. “It was really tough.”

Police then resorted to tear gas to drive the families back.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive,” Aida Parra told the Spanish news agency EFE on Wednesday. “They haven’t told me anything.”

In video footage from the scene, one woman who identified herself as the mother of an inmate railed against police. “Corrupt police threw gasoline in there,” she said. “We want justice. We want to know what is happening.”

Peguiliana Ruiz, a 47-year-old street vendor in Valencia, said she formally identified the body of her son, Brian Silva, by a tattoo and an amputation.

“He lost a leg long ago. So I could recognize him,” she said. “There were so many bodies on the floor. It was something that one sees it and can’t believe it. Too horrible.”

Ruiz said her 26-year-old son had been held for two years. When family members arrived at the compound during the fire, police used tear gas and rubber bullets to keep the crowds away, she said.

“We’re not dogs or anything less. We want justice,” she said. “So many kids were left without fathers now. Guilty and innocent, it’s not fair that they die like that. Those responsible have to pay.”

The fire was one of the deadliest jail disasters in a country where human rights advocates say conditions for prisoners are among the worst in Latin America. In 1994, a prison fire in the state of Zulia killed at least 100. Last August, at least 37 inmates died in a riot in the southern state of Amazonas.

In a statement, the nonprofit watchdog Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons said: “We have been warning of the grave situation of police detention centers that put the lives and personal integrity of the detained at risk. . . . The deaths have to be investigated to define responsibilities.”

In the first two months of 2018, the Observatory has registered 26 dead in jails, 10 injured, 1,016 prisoners on hunger strikes for better conditions and 90 escapees.

The group’s 2016 annual report said 54,758 prisoners were being held in spaces meant for 35,562. That year, it said, 173 inmates died in custody, 58 percent more than in 2015. The report also said 33,000 detainees were in police stations that had capacity for only 8,000.

Matheus, the lawmaker, said the tragedy highlighted the crisis in the country’s penal system. He said a lack of adequate prisons in Venezuela meant that inmates were often jammed into cramped detention centers in police stations — often for years while awaiting trial.

“People are in limbo there,” he said, promising to bring the matter up in the National Assembly when it meets again Tuesday.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Gov. Rafael Lacava promised to form a group that would work to “decongest police detention centers and create new spaces for prisoners.” “The responsible have to pay for the crimes committed, for their actions but also for their inactions,” Lacava said. “Let’s not politicize this incident.”

Also, in a statement from Geneva, the U.N. human rights body called for an investigation to establish the causes of the deaths, identify those responsible and pay reparations to families.

Faiola reported from Miami.

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