68 Dead as Riots, Fire Hit Venezuela Police Station
Families hoping for news outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas and authorities.
Riots and a fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station in the central city of Valencia killed 68 people on Wednesday, 28 March according to the government and witnesses, reported Reuters.
Families hoping for news outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas and authorities did not give information until late into the evening.
“The State Prosecutor’s Office guarantees to deepen investigations to immediately clarify what happened in these painful events that have left dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning,” said Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab on Twitter.
Venezuelan prisons are notoriously overcrowded and filled with weapons and drugs. Riots leaving dozens dead are not uncommon.
State official Jesus Santander said the state of Carabobo was in mourning after the incident in the city of Valencia.
"Forensic doctors are determining the number of fatalities," Santander said. A policeman was shot in the leg and was in a stable condition and firefighters had extinguished the flames, he said.
Many Venezuelan prisons are lawless and have been for decades. Prisoners often openly wield machine guns and grenades, use drugs and leave guards powerless.
"There are people who are inside those dungeons (...) and the authorities do not know they exist because they do not dare to enter," said Humberto Prado, a local prisons rights activist.
Earlier, police had launched tear gas to disperse the crowd of screaming men and women in Valencia, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas.
“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” Aida Parra told Associated Press (AP), who said she last saw her son a day before, when she went to deliver him food. “They haven’t told me anything.”
According to AP, A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela's jails, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.
A Window to Freedom's director, Carlos Nieto Palma, told AP that officials should be held accountable for failing to address deteriorating conditions in police station jails. The group said that prisons overcrowd as detainees are kept long past customary brief holding periods before being sent to other larger jails before trial or being freed.
"It's grave and alarming," Nieto Palma said. "What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that."
(With inputs from Reuters and AP)
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