68 Die in Venezuelan Jail Fire, Adding to Chaos Before Election

Updated on
  • After prisoners mount an escape attempt, a riot and flames
  • The government fails to provide even food at detention centers

Rioting and fire killed 68 people in a Venezuelan jail, a disaster that adds to chaos engulfing the nation before its May 20 presidential election.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab tweeted that almost all the victims were prisoners and the toll included two women staying overnight at the police lockup in Valencia, an industrial hub about 170 kilometers (105 miles) from Caracas, the nation’s capital. He appointed four prosecutors to investigate.

Relatives of inmates comfort each other outside the police station on March 28.

Photographer: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The riot began when inmates plotting an escape tried to kidnap two police officers and started a riot, setting mattresses on fire, according to Carlos Nieto Palma, director of the Window to Freedom prison monitor organization. Officers overseeing the detention center, which has a capacity of 35 people but was holding at least 200 plus an unknown number of visitors, didn’t open cell doors, he said. Video broadcast by the BBC showed relatives clashing with riot police amid plumes of tear gas as they tried to learn the fate of loved ones.

The UN Human Rights Office called the deaths “horrific” and said police were wrong to gas the victims’ families.

“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 agency said in a statement.

Failing State

The toll may increase pressure on President Nicolas Maduro ahead of the May 20 election, with the incident coming amid hyperinflation, food shortages and declining oil production. Maduro is widely unpopular, but most opposition parties have refused to participate in what they say will be a rigged vote. Meanwhile, hunger and crime threaten to overwhelm desperate citizens.

Relatives wait outside police headquarters in Valencia on March 29.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

Venezuela is one of the world’s most violent nations and its prisons are notorious for overcrowding and misrule. According to the annual report of Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones, 173 prisoners died and 268 were injured in 2016 out of a inmate population of 54,788. Venezuela’s jail system was facing a "critical risk," with prisons holding more than double their capacity, the organization said.

Henrique Capriles, ex-governor of Miranda state and a longtime opposition figure, asked on Twitter, “How many more times are we going to see the same Dantesque scenes with the prisoners of the country?”

The Associated Press reported that the fire was one of the nation’s worst jail disasters. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994, the news agency said.

Foodless Prisons

Human rights groups complain about deteriorating conditions in prisons and jails in the country. Insight Crime, an organization that monitors jail conditions in Venezuela, said in a September report that in 2015, the last year with reliable information, around 63 percent of those incarcerated had yet to be sentenced.

Detention centers such as the one in Valencia are designed as temporary hubs where inmates stay 48 hours before being routed to prisons. Nieto Palma estimated that Venezuela operates around 500 detention centers with as many as 45,000 inmates waiting for a permanent cell. The Penitentiary Ministry lacks resources and such pass-through jails become prisons by default, without the facilities to provide even basic services such as serving food.

“The ministry is not assuming its responsibility as guarantor of the human rights for those deprived of freedom in this country," Nieto Palma said via telephone from Caracas.

The immediate political implications will be difficult to gauge, he said, as “things are so dire nowadays, that people care about finding food and not much else.”

— With assistance by Noris Soto, and Fabiola Zerpa

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