Venezuela riots
30 Mar 2018

68 die in Venezuelan jail fire - Families demand answers

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Video: (Above) Al Jazeera's Alessandro Rampietti reports from Bogota in neighbouring Colombia.

CARACAS, Venezuela — At least 68 people died on Wednesday March 28 when a fire erupted during a riot at a jail in the northern Venezuelan city of Valencia, the attorney general said late Wednesday. Angry family members are now demanding answers to how a party could turn into a riot.

It began as a jailhouse party. It ended in carnage.

The association Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window on Freedom), which monitors jail conditions, said its reports showed a police officer had been shot in the leg by a detainee and that shortly afterwards mattresses in cells were set ablaze and the fire quickly spread, reports BBC World and other international media.

Angry relatives gathered outside the detention centre and clashed with police as they sought information about loved ones.

Aida Parra, who said she had last seen her son the day before, told the Associated Press news agency: "I don't know if my son is dead or alive. They haven't told me anything."

Dora Blanco told local media: "I am a desperate mother. My son has been here a week. They have not given any information."

The government has set up an inquiry.

Carabobo state governor Rafael Lacava expressed his condolences, adding: "A serious and profound investigation has been initiated to find the causes and those responsible for these regrettable events."

Mr Santander did confirm one police officer had been shot.

Rescuers reportedly broke through walls to try to free those trapped by the blaze.

Nearly all of those who died were inmates but at least two women who were visiting at the time were also killed, Mr Saab said.

Some of the victims burned to death, others died of smoke inhalation.

On Thursday, grieving families collected their dead after one of the worst prison fires in the country’s history claimed the lives of 68 people. The relatives searched for answers, but also offered a chilling account of what they had learned so far: The fire began after gangs running a party in an overcrowded jail fought with the guards. A hostage was taken; a fire broke out.

Dozens perished in the smoke and flames, screaming for help.

Yet the pain didn’t end there. Witnesses said that grieving relatives who had come were sprayed with tear gas by security forces who tried to disperse them.

“I’ve been living here 55 years, and it’s the first time I’ve seen something like this,” said María, whose home is near the prison, and who refused to give her last name for fear of reprisals by the police for describing the tear-gassing.

The scenes were shocking, even in Venezuela, where tragedy has become the norm.

Grocery stores are short of food and hospitals are bereft of supplies as the country’s economic meltdown hastens. President Nicolás Maduro marches toward autocracy, isolating his country from humanitarian aid and keeping opponents in jail ahead of a presidential election in May. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country, seeking lives in lands where there is more hope.

Yet the fire underlined the fate of a group for whom escape was never possible: The tens of thousands of Venezuelan prisoners neglected in overcrowded cells by the very government charged with their custody.

The announcement came hours after crowds of anguished family members had gathered outside the facility, some weeping and others facing off with police officers in riot gear. The Venezuelan news media reported that the police used tear gas. Officials had released little information throughout the day.

"They say a lot of people are dead, people got burned, people who were injured. They've taken out the injured. Where are the family members of these people? No one knows. Whether they are here, or in the hospital, or really where they are. We don't know anything."

Family members will be informed of the total number of victims at an "opportune moment," said Jesus Santander, secretary-general of the Carabobo state government. He also confirmed detainees had died.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, the mother of a prisoner, the Spanish news agency EFE reported. “They haven’t told me anything.”

Tarek Saab, the attorney general, said four prosecutors had been named to investigate the circumstances that led to the deaths. All but two of the victims were men, he said.

“What we want is justice,” one relative, María José Rondón, said in a video posted to Twitter. “We want to know everything that is happening.”

Gunfire was reported as the rioting began, although the source and the reasons were unclear, and the fire erupted during the unrest.

Police officers disperse the relatives of prisoners who were waiting to hear news about family members imprisoned at the police station.

As news filtered out early in the day, angry family members seeking information clashed with police and pushed against a barricade, prompting officers to shoot tear gas at the crowd, according to local media reports.

Carmen Caldera, a parent of one of the inmates, said the authorities were withholding information from them. "They haven't told me anything," she said.

"I want to know about my child. I don't have any information on him, I don't know anything. We want information about our family members. We need information. Look at how desperate we are."

Another family member of an inmate said the injured had been taken out of the facility but that information was scant.

"I came here because I haven't heard anything regarding my brother since seven in the morning," Isett Gonzalez said.

It is unclear what caused the fire or how many of the deceased were visitors at the detention center.

Santander said investigators were probing what caused what he termed an "irregular situation," which took place early Wednesday morning.

Valencia is located approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of the capital, Caracas, along Venezuela's Caribbean coast.

The overcrowding in Venezuela’s jails is staggering even by Latin American standards. In 2015, the most recent year for which reliable figures are available, 49,644 people were incarcerated in prisons designed to hold 19,000 inmates, Insight Crime reported last year. An additional 33,000 people were held in temporary holding cells built for 5,000, it said.

The inmates include everyone from convicted murderers to political prisoners of the government and protesters who were rounded up during demonstrations against Mr. Maduro last year and are being held in military jails.

More than 6,600 people died in the country’s prisons between 1999 and 2015, Human Rights Watch reported. Last year, a mass grave holding 15 bodies was found by construction workers at a prison in the state of Guárico. In 2014, officials said more than 30 were killed in a mass poisoning of prisoners on a hunger strike.

Roberto Briceño-León, the head of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a nongovernmental group, said Venezuela’s reliance on temporary holding cells to keep prisoners has caused its own problems.

He said in many police stations up to a third of officers are now guarding prisoners rather than policing the streets. The facilities are not built to house people for the long term, yet some inmates remain for years.

“I’m not just talking about having no place to go to the bathroom or to sleep — they don’t have anything to eat there,” said Mr. Briceño-León. Because of the shortages, he said, “the police themselves don’t have enough food to eat.”

At a funeral home near the jail, relatives awaited the arrival of bodies on Thursday. One mother named Andrea, who did not give her last name because she feared reprisals by the police, waited to take home the remains of her son.

A woman was affected by tear gas fired near the police station. Credit Miguel Gutiérrez/EPA, via Shutterstock

She could not contain her anger against the police.

“I want him to be at home, and then I want to bury him properly, not like a dog,” she said. “They treated him like a dog. I lost a part of me.”

Back at the police station, the mother of Carlos Sánchez, one of the deceased, waited for word on her son. When officials called her, she knew the bad news had come. She repeated Mr. Sánchez’s name over and over.

“Carlos Sánchez?” a policewoman shouted.

A woman immediately raised her hand and yelled, “I’m his mother, yes.”

“He died,” the policewoman said.

The policewoman who delivered the news recited some names of inmates who had survived the fire and then shouted: “Look, I haven’t had any breakfast, so let’s calm down. These are the names I have, that’s it.”

Mr. Sánchez’s mother hugged her daughter and the two eventually fell to the floor, crying and asking God to hear their prayers.

Yet amid the grief, some prayers were being answered that day.

Ms. García, who had taken the bus to the jail only to have the police take her to identify the body of someone who wasn’t her son, went looking for him in the jail, before ending up in an area that prisoners call “El Tigrito,” or the Little Tiger.

There, crowded with 20 other men, was her son.

“I could feel my soul coming back to my body,” she said.

Her son told her about what had happened.

“Everyone was shouting asking for help,” he recalled him saying. “Mom, that was ugly.”

The family celebrated his being alive. But there was no escape from the dangers: He remains in jail, locked up for the last two years after stealing a cellphone.

Like other survivors from the jail, he is still awaiting his trial.