Authorities in Venezuela faced an onslaught of national and international outrage Thursday over a blaze in a police station\’s jail in which 68 people died, in one of the worst disasters to hit the country\’s desperately overcrowded detention facilities.
Two female visitors were among those who perished as fire and smoke on Wednesday engulfed cells in the police headquarters in Valencia, Venezuela\’s third-biggest city, located in northern Carabobo state near the capital Caracas.
A prisoners\’ rights groups said the 66 others killed were all male detainees.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab, who gave the death toll amid mayhem early Thursday at the police building, said the fire was the likely cause of the deaths. He said it looked to have been started deliberately by the detainees.
Anguished relatives of those being kept there had tried to storm the station on Wednesday, during which an officer was hurt by a stone. Police responded with tear gas to disperse them.
On Thursday, the crowd was calmer but no less anxious.
"I can\’t get past to see if he\’s dead of not," wailed Maria, an elderly woman whose son was being held in the station.
Nearby, a female police officer read off a list of survivors.
"They gave me the body of my nephew yesterday, and I\’ve been here since 6:00 am waiting for his ID card," so he can be buried, another relative, Carmen Varela, told AFP.
"He wasn\’t burned. He had a gunshot to his head. To me, it looks like it was a slaughter," she said, visibly angry.
"I want to see my brother," said one woman who gave her first name as Yelitza.
The police, she said, "were the ones who caused this — it was a massacre."
The UN\’s human rights office in Switzerland said in a statement it was "appalled at the horrific deaths" at the station, and called for authorities to fully investigate.
– Attempted jailbreak –
Although the station\’s cells were designed to hold arrested suspects for up to 48 hours, many of those being kept in them were thought to be convicted prisoners unable to be accommodated in the country\’s overflowing penitentiaries.
An inmates\’ rights association called Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window on Freedom) said the fire was started by detainees attempting a jailbreak.
"The detainees tried to grab two police officers. When that didn\’t work, they started a riot and decided to set fire to mattresses, thinking that the doors would then have to be opened. (But) the bars didn\’t open," the group\’s director, Carlos Nieto, told AFP.
Fire crews had to smash a hole in the wall so survivors could get out, he said, adding around 200 people were being held inside at the time.
Some prisoners "burned to death and others were asphyxiated," Nieto said.
Photos taken by Nieto\’s group showed the body of a man with burns and firefighters trying to put out flames.
– Dire conditions –
Venezuela\’s prisons suffer from dire overcrowding and a shortage of basic supplies, struggling under the deepening economic crisis that is gripping the once-wealthy oil-producing country.
Nieto\’s association estimates that the temporary detention cells in Venezuela\’s police stations are at five times their capacity.
"All the police stations in Venezuela are facing similar or worse conditions of overcrowding, lack of food and disease," he said.
The association said 65 people died last year in the holding cells due to violence, malnutrition or tuberculosis.
Two weeks ago, 58 detainees escaped holding cells on Margarita Island, a favored tourist spot, after punching a hole in their facility\’s wall. They were all quickly recaptured.
In August 2017, a riot left 37 dead and 14 wounded in police cells in the southern state of Amazonas, while an April 2017 clash between rival gangs left 12 dead and 11 injured in the Puente Ayala prison in the eastern city of Barcelona.
A month before that, the remains of 14 people were found in a mass grave in the General Penitentiary of Venezuela, in San Juan de Los Morros in the country\’s center.