VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Distraught relatives of some 68 people killed in a riot and fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station demanded explanations on Thursday and rights groups and opposition politicians blamed leftist President Nicolas Maduro for overcrowding in the country’s notoriously violent jails.
There was a shoot-out with police at one point during Wednesday’s disaster in the city of Valencia, some inmates’ relatives and an injured inmate recounted. The badly burned survivor told a harrowing tale of seeing friends die before he managed to escape.
Deadly riots are common in Venezuela’s lawless prisons, where inmates often openly wield machine guns and use drugs. But the death toll from the riot and fire in Valencia, a run-down city that was once a thriving industrial hub, was the worst from such an incident in more than two decades.
The public prosecutor put the number of people who died at 68, including two women who were visiting inmates.
Authorities had little comment on the disaster by early Thursday afternoon. Maduro tweeted messages about the Easter holidays and his recent meeting with Hollywood actor Danny Glover but did not refer to the Valencia deaths.
The governor of Carabobo state, Rafael Lacava, issued a statement promising to investigate the incident, support bereaved families, and improve prison conditions. The communique did not provide specifics, however, and the opposition slammed the central government for its silence.
“In the face of tragedy and pain over what happened in Carabobo, the government’s silence and indolence indicates it is looking for excuses to hide its obvious responsibility,” said Omar Barboza, president of the opposition-led Congress.
Security forces drew condemnation from many Venezuelans when they used tear gas on Wednesday to disperse wailing families who were demanding information outside the Valencia police station.
On Thursday, the scene in the city, about 150 km (90 miles) west of Caracas, was quiet, mournful and desperate as about 100 largely poor Venezuelans waited to collect bodies or to verify that their jailed relatives were alive.
Homemaker Daniela Pastrana, her eyes bloodshot from tears and fatigue, said she had been trying since Wednesday night to identify the body of her husband, Endruver Torres. He had called her in a panic on Wednesday morning, saying there was a shootout in the cells, she said.
“We were on the phone and they were saying ‘(the police) is shooting at us, they’re throwing gasoline at us,’” said Pastrana, 32, who is expecting her fourth child. She said authorities had told her the fire was sparked by a short circuit.
“We know it wasn’t a short circuit,” said Pastrana angrily.
A representative for police in Carabobo state told Reuters he was not authorized to comment.
Three relatives of inmates confirmed Pastrana’s version of a shootout, as did surviving prisoner Yorman Trejo.
Speaking to Reuters from a hospital bed on Thursday, Trejo recounted being awoken at 7 a.m. on Wednesday by gun shots he said were being exchanged by police officers and prisoners. A fire broke out too, spreading quickly in the overcrowded cells strung with hammocks.
The slim 28-year old, who had been in jail for a year accused of theft, was badly burned and said he saw most of his friends die before he managed to escape through a hole in the wall.
“It hurts... But thanks to God I am alive,” said Trejo, whose face and arms were scarred, as his wife blew flies off his face.
Prison violence has been an issue in Venezuela for decades. Late leftist leader Hugo Chavez once described the problem as the world’s most “savage” and promised to clean it up.
But opposition politicians said the disaster was another sign of the ruling socialists’ incompetence in a country that is deep in economic crisis and is plagued with food shortages, hyperinflation, and rampant crime.
“The only culprit is the government, which keeps a huge quantity of prisoners crammed together in police office cells for a long time in inhumane conditions,” said opposition lawmaker Yajaira Forero.
In Geneva, the United Nations human rights office called on authorities to carry out a speedy investigation, provide reparations to victims’ families, and, where applicable, identify and bring those responsible to justice.
Violent uprisings in neighbouring Brazil’s prison population are also a regular occurrence, fuelled by chronic overcrowding, degrading conditions and competition between criminal groups that control large swaths of penitentiaries.
Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Venezuela; Additional reporting by Girish Gupta in Caracas and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Frances Kerry