Police charged with homicide after deadly Venezuela jail fire

Relatives grieve during the funeral of some of the victims of a prison fire in Valencia, Venezuela, March 30, 2018
AFP

Caracas (AFP) – Five Venezuelan police officials have been charged with homicide after the deadly fire in a state police headquarters that killed 68 people last week, the state prosecutor’s office said Wednesday.

Among those charged is the deputy chief of police in the northern state of Carabobo, Jose Luis Rodriguez. The others are a supervisor and three officers. 

The men also face charges of failing to assist people in danger, and corruption, the prosecutor’s office said.

The five have been in detention since last Saturday when they were arrested in the city of Valencia, where the fire occurred in the main police station’s overcrowded detention facilities.

Prosecutors said they are investigating what started the blaze, which claimed the lives of 66 inmates and two women who had spent the night in the jail.

Prisoners’ rights group A Window on Freedom said the fires were started by the inmates themselves to force guards to open doors, but the guards refused and eventually firefighters had to smash through a wall to try to save those inside.

“It is presumed the police charged the inmates money to allow women to stay overnight in the compound … among other irregularities,” a statement from the prosecutor’s office said.

The fire is one of the deadliest in Venezuela’s long history of prison disasters. Nearly 400 people have died in the country’s prisons since 2011, according to official figures and rights groups.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro said it would compensate the victims’ families.

A Window to Freedom blamed the government for continued overcrowding at provisional detention centers, where prisoners are not supposed to spend more than 24 hours but can remain many months awaiting trial.

The NGO estimates the prison system to be 400 percent overpopulated.

Venezuela is suffering hyperinflation, a lack of basic food and medicine, and is sliding inexorably towards default, despite sitting atop the biggest proven oil reserves in the world.

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