VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — In the living room of his family’s two-story blue and white home in one of Valencia’s poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods, relatives gathered around Daniel Marquez’s wooden casket and wailed as they examined his blackened remains.
“He didn’t deserve to die like this,” Sorangel Gutierrez, a sister-in-law, said Thursday, a day after a fire swept through the cells of a police station and killed 68 people, nearly all of them detainees like Marquez.
Relatives said the 28-year-old man had been locked up for nearly a year because he couldn’t pay a bribe to a police officer who found a photo of an illegal weapon on his cellphone.
Families of the victims of one of Venezuela’s worst jail fires mourned and began burying the dead as they demanded officials explain what had happened and hold those responsible accountable.
“I want justice for my son,” Rocky Varela said as he waited to recover the remains of his 27-year-old namesake. “Those who did this need to pay.”
Varying versions of the tense moments that led to the devastating blaze circulated among relatives and human rights groups, a sharp contrast to the silence of officials, who provided almost no details on the disaster. Marquez’s family said he called them shortly before the fire claiming guards were pouring gasoline in the cellblock. Other accounts from survivors and relatives indicated it was the inmates themselves who set the facility on fire hoping to escape.
President Nicolas Maduro made no statement about the fire and loss of life in Valencia, an industrial city in Carabobo state about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas. Maduro only posted a video on Twitter of an encounter with U.S. actor Danny Glover and reminded Venezuelans of the hundreds of beaches where they can spend Holy Week.
The most substantial comment from authorities came in a series of three tweets from chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab, who announced the death toll late Wednesday. He pledged a “thorough investigation to immediately shed light on the painful events that have put dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning.”
As Venezuela struggles in an economic crisis worse than the Great Depression, advocates say prisoners face especially dire conditions, going hungry in increasingly crowded cells. Inmates also frequently obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.
“The negligence of authorities continues causing deaths,” a non-governmental watchdog group, Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, said in a statement.
The United Nations’ human rights office said it was “appalled at the horrific deaths” and urged Venezuela to quickly address concerns like judicial delays, the excessive use of pre-trial detention and cramped quarters that can lead to riots and violence.
The death toll surpassed nearly every recent mass casualty event at Venezuelan prisons and jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994. In 2013, 61 people died and over 100 were injured, mostly from bullet wounds, during a riot in Barquisimeto.
Carlos Nieto, director of A Window to Freedom, a group that monitors prison conditions, told The Associated Press that accounts from survivors and victims’ relatives indicated the fire in Valencia began when inmates tried to kidnap two guards. Later they reportedly set some mattresses on fire in an attempt to force guards to open up the cells so that they could escape, he said.
Nieto said officers should have opened the cells once flames began spreading.
“The ones that were rescued were saved because firefighters opened a wall from behind to get them out,” he said.
An estimated 32,000 detainees are being kept in Venezuelan police stations that are filled far past capacity, Nieto’s group says. The jail at the Valencia police station was built to hold 35 detainees, but at the time of the fire some 200 people were believed to be inside.
Despite Venezuelan laws mandating that detainees be held for a maximum of four days after an initial arrest, relatives said many of the Valencia prisoners had been jailed for far longer, waiting to be transferred to larger facilities.
On Thursday, the smell of smoke still wafted in the air and a white column at the police station’s front entrance was stained black from the fire.
Miles away, Marquez’s relatives pressed their fingers against the square of glass revealing the burned face of the father of two. Some spoke to him quietly while others openly sobbed.
Relatives said he sold clothes and shoes to support his family. They described him as a warm, outgoing man who adored his children.
“I want my dad,” his 13-year-old daughter, Feliana, cried as she looked at her father. “Why did he leave?”
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, and Christine Armario in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.