68 people were reportedly killed on Wednesday in a riot at a police station in Valencia, Venezuela. When families gathered outside on Thursday to demand news of their loved ones, the police dispersed the crowd with tear gas.
Venezuelan Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said on Wednesday that the dead included 66 men and two women, who were evidently visiting inmates at the prison when the fire broke out. He said four prosecutors have been assigned to investigate the incident and “immediately shed light on the painful events that have put dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning.”
“We urge the Venezuelan authorities to carry out a prompt, thorough and effective investigation to establish the cause of these deaths, provide reparations to the victims’ families, and, where applicable, identify and bring those responsible to justice,” the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement on the tragedy.
Human rights groups have long complained about overcrowded and inhumane conditions in Venezuelan jails. The political opposition claims conditions have grown much worse under dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Among other offenses, prison officials have been accused of holding detainees much longer than the initial 48-hour period mandated under Venezuelan law and abusing detainees, who have protested their hideous conditions with numerous hunger strikes. There are reports of small temporary holding cells at police stations repurposed as long-term holding facilities stuffed with hundreds of prisoners, who often die from disease and malnutrition, or are killed by other prisoners.
Venezuelan inmates have reported they were forced to eat rats and pigeons, and in the most extreme cases other prisoners, to avoid starvation. Allegations of torture ranging from sleep deprivation to electroshock have been made. Attempts to massacre prisoners wholesale have been reported.
“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,” declared opposition lawmaker Yajaira Forero after news of the jailhouse fire and riot emerged.
“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” added lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus, criticizing the authorities for waiting far too long to inform the families of prisoners about the condition of their loved ones. The authorities claim they withheld estimated casualty counts out of respect for the families.
One watchdog group cited unconfirmed reports that a prisoner was able to gain possession of a gun and shoot a jail officer in the leg. (This might not have been a case of the prisoner wrestling a firearm away from a guard; Venezuelan prisons are notorious for corrupt guards helping prisoners obtain drugs and weapons, ranging from knives and machetes to machine guns and hand grenades.)
A fire was evidently set or accidentally started during the ensuing riot, and spread rapidly through the mattresses in the cells. Some reports claim the fire was set deliberately to facilitate an escape attempt and grew out of control.