Grief and horror as 68 die in Venezuelan police station riot and inferno
Violence was reportedly triggered when a guard was shot in the leg by a prisoner in the cells
Rioting and a fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station in the central city of Valencia killed 68 people on Wednesday, according to the government and witnesses.
There were scenes of grief among families desperately hoping for news outside the police station. But they were dispersed with tear gas and authorities did not give information about the scale of the horror 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.
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.
A large crowd of angry relatives demanding to know if their loved ones had survived clashed with officers in riot gear. Police launched tear gas to disperse the crowd of screaming men and women in Valencia, about 160km west of Caracas.
“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son a day before, when she went to deliver him food. “They haven’t told me anything.”
A Window to Freedom, a non-profit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot the officer in the leg. The group’s director, Carlos Nieto Palma, said that “some burned to death and others asphyxiated” after setting fire to mattresses and stealing a guard’s gun in an attempt to break out.
The dead included two women thought to have been visiting the jail at the time of the incident, Nieto Palma said.
Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.
Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off.
Nieto Palma said officials should be held accountable for failing to address deteriorating conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout the country as detainees are kept long past customary brief holding periods before being sent to other larger jails before trial or freed.
“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.”
Outside the police station, some relatives buried their hands in their faces as tears streamed down their cheeks. Others had to be held up with the support of friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Still others wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.
Nearby, National Guard troops wearing bulletproof vests and carrying rifles across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside, and unused stretchers leaned against a wall.
Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what had happened.
“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said.
Venezuelan prisons are notoriously overcrowded and filled with weapons and drugs. Riots leaving dozens dead are not uncommon.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse