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The riot and fire was one of the worst incidents of recent prison violence in the country. Photo: AP

At least 52 die in Colombia prison riot fire after mattresses set alight

  • Fire broke out during what appeared to be an attempted riot at a prison in the Colombian city of Tulua
  • Justice minister said two inmates had a fight and one of them set fire to a mattress, starting the inferno

At least 52 inmates were killed and 26 more injured after a fire broke out during a prison riot in southwestern Colombia, the national prisons agency said.

The tragedy occurred when rioting inmates set a fire early Tuesday, attempting to prevent police from entering their enclosure at the prison in the city of Tulua, said Tito Castellanos, director of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC).

“By setting mattresses alight, they had not gauged what the consequences could be and unfortunately this happened,” Castellanos told Radio RCN.

He said the blaze had been brought under control by firefighters.

By evening, forensic teams had entered the prison, which holds more than 1,200 inmates, to try to identify the bodies.

Outside the prison, dozens of family members gathered hoping for information on their loved ones.

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Lorena, who did not give her surname, told the El Tiempo newspaper that she had spoken to her inmate partner at dawn.

“It seems illogical to me that people enclosed in a building would have set mattresses alight knowing that they could have been burned,” she said.

Authorities had initially said they were investigating whether the incident occurred as part of an escape attempt but later said it was a riot.

“This situation was provoked by a fight that broke out between prisoners. One of the inmates set fire – he was angry, upset – to a mattress, which provoked the blaze,” said Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz.

There were 180 inmates in the prison section affected by the fire.

Castellanos praised the efforts of prison guards to control the blaze and help prisoners to safety. He said that without their intervention “the result would have been worse”.

The prison in Tulua, Colombia. Photo: AFP

Outgoing President Ivan Duque sent a tweet offering his solidarity with relatives of the victims.

“We regret the events that occurred in the prison in Tulua, Valle del Cauca,” Duque said.

President-elect Gustavo Petro also expressed his sympathies and said on Twitter that there needed to be “a complete rethinking of prison policy” that takes into account “prisoner dignity”.

“The Colombian state has viewed prison as a space for revenge and not for rehabilitation,” added Petro, who won an election run-off earlier this month and will replace Duque on August 7.

He also made reference to a riot at the La Modelo prison in Bogota in 2002 that left 23 inmates dead.

Fatal prison riots are not uncommon in Latin America. In Colombia’s neighbour Ecuador, nearly 400 prisoners have been killed in six riots since early 2021.

Colombia’s prison system has a capacity for 97,000 inmates but is overpopulated by some 16,000, according to INPEC.

Additional reporting by Associated Press