At least 68 people have died during a fire that erupted in a Venezuela police station after a riot involving prisoners.
The fire reportedly broke out after inmates set fire to mattresses in a bid to break free from the General Command of the Carabobo Police headquarters in Valencia, a town about 100 miles west of Caracas, on Wednesday.
Attorney General Tarek William Saab said late on Wednesday that an investigation was underway to determine how the deadly fire happened.
Relatives of prisoners clashed with police outside the prison in Venezuela on Wednesday after authorities refused to confirm if anyone had died in a fire and riot
Local authorities had only confirmed earlier in the day that there were fatalities, but said they were not providing any estimates ‘out of respect for the families.’
Angry relatives who gathered outside the station during the day said dozens of detainees had been kept in squalid conditions at the station and expressed fear that their loved ones were dead.
Dozens of men and women demanding to know if their loved ones had survived clashed with police officers in riot gear.
Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
‘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.’
Relatives of inmates held at the General Command of the Carabobo Police react as they wait outside the prison, where a fire broke out and left 68 dead
A woman breaks down outside the prison as she waits for news of her relative on Wednesday
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.
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, 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.’
A relative of prisoner cries outside the prison where at least 68 people died in a riot fire
Dozens of men and women demanding to know if their loved ones had survived clashed with police officers in riot gear
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 bullet-proof 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.
Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela.
Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.