By: Emily Green
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s head prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, reports that 68 people were killed in a jail fire on Wednesday morning. Devastated families gathered outside the jail to demand answers from lawmakers.
The fire started in the detention center of a police headquarters in Valencia, 100 miles west of Caracas. It quickly ripped through the building and engulfed the jail. At the time, relatives were lined up outside waiting to enter so frantic visitors witnessed the blaze. Saab announced that all of the fatalities were inmates except for two women. He promised an investigation and appointed four prosecutors to give more detail on the tragic event.
Local opposition lawmaker, Juan Miguel Matheus, said that the events were compounded by the delay of information. After the fire had been extinguished, no one was allowed to see the bodies. He explained, “part of the drama is that there was no list of dead because many of the bodies were incinerated and it was impossible to recognize them.” He believes the fatalities actually reached 78.
One mother of an inmate, Carmen Caldera, said the authorities were withholding information from them. She said, “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.” Jesus Santander, secretary-general of the Carabobo state government, responded that family members will be informed of the total number of victims at an “opportune moment.”
Once journalists and photographers started arriving, family members began pushing the police to enter. They clashed with police and threw rocks at them. The officers resorted to tear gas to drive the families back.
This fire struck during the country’s historic economic and political crisis. The shortage of basic goods and significant social unrest has had adverse effects on an already overcrowded prison system. Inmates lacked food, water, and medical care, even though guns and drugs were plentiful. The lawmaker, Matheus, reported that at least 180 inmates were crammed into the detention center which was supposed to house 60. Recently, there have been inmate strikes all over Venezuela to protest situations like these.
One nonprofit prison watchdog group, A Window to Freedom, said the blaze began after inmates set fire to their mattresses in an attempt to escape. The source reports that the fire caused so much smoke that people started to die in the enclosed space. All of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation and the two female fatalities came from conjugal visits.
The UN human rights body released a statement from Geneva calling for an investigation to establish the causes of the deaths, identify those responsible, and pay reparations to families. Additionally, Governor Rafael Lacava has promised to form a group that will work to “decongest police detention centers and create new spaces for prisoners.”
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