A prison riot in the Colombian capital of Bogotá on Saturday sparked by the ongoing Chinese coronavirus outbreak left 23 people dead and a further 83 injured, the country’s Minister of Justice Margarita Cabello announced on Sunday.
In a video statement, Cabello confirmed that in addition to those dead, 32 prisoners have been hospitalized and seven prison guards wounded. Two of the guards are in critical condition.
“Today is a very sad and painful day,” Cabello said. “Last night there was a mass criminal escape attempt at the El Modelo prison and riots in various detention centers around the country.”
Declaraciones de la Ministra de Justicia Margarita Cabello y el Director del @INPEC_Colombia, General Norberto Mujica con respecto a situación ocurrida en la cárcel nacional La Modelo en Bogotá. pic.twitter.com/mp0AOHD4gH
— Presidencia Colombia (@infopresidencia) March 22, 2020
Even though disturbances took place in 12 prisons nationwide, only in the La Modelo prison in Bogotá were significant injuries and loss of life. According to sources that spoke with El Tiempo, the structure of the prison does not allow for guards to rapidly carry out the necessary protocols to restrict movement and place the facility on lockdown.
Cell phone footage posted across social media on Saturday showed graphic scenes within the prisons, including fires and violence against prisoners and guards. In one video, a prisoner complained that inmates had been “abandoned like dogs” during the outbreak.
Motín en una cárcel de Colombia por el covid-19 deja decenas de muertos y heridos
Un motín que tuvo lugar en la cárcel La Modelo de Bogotá cuando presos exigieron que el Gobierno estableciera medidas para evitar que se propague covid-19 en el recinto dejó 23 muertos y 90 heridos pic.twitter.com/kJKIhtNYye
— RT en Español (@ActualidadRT) March 23, 2020
The principal motive behind the riots is understood to be poor sanitary conditions, which authorities have failed to address despite the coronavirus outbreak. Conditions in the country’s prisons are known to be notoriously harsh and have regularly drawn the attention of human rights observers.
Cabello insisted that conditions were not severe enough to justify the riots and has announced a full investigation.
“There is not any sanitary problem that would have caused this plan and these riots,” she said. “There is not one infection nor any prisoner or custodial or administrative staffer who has coronavirus.”
Friends and relatives of the prisoners congregated outside the gates of La Modelo prison after hearing the news of gunshots.
— W Radio Colombia (@WRadioColombia) March 22, 2020
According to figures from the Colombian Justice Ministry, the country’s 132 prisons house over 121,000 prisoners, despite having a mere 81,000-inmate capacity. In response to the violence, the office of the human rights ombudsman called on the government to declare a state of emergency that would permit the early release of older inmates.
“This way there could be exceptional circumstances that would facilitate releases and temporary rules for those over 60 and with sentences of up to eight years,” the office said on Twitter.
Unrest has also broken out in prisons in other parts of the world, including Italy and Brazil, as inmates express their anger at new conditions imposed upon them. While the incident in Brazil involved a large-scale jailbreak of a low-security facility, riots in Italy have left at least 12 people dead.
Colombia and Latin America as a whole remain behind Europe and Asian in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, although they are rapidly catching up. There have so far been 231 confirmed cases of the virus in Colombia, leading to two deaths.
Starting on Tuesday, the country will enter a nationwide lockdown scheduled to last 19 days, restricting people’s movements with the exception of essential workers and those venturing out to purchase groceries or medical supplies.