Outcry Grows Over Venezuela Jail Riot; 68 Killed

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) -

Anguished relatives of some 68 people killed in a riot and fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station demanded explanations on Thursday, while rights groups and opposition politicians blamed leftist President Nicolas Maduro for overcrowding in the country’s notoriously violent jails.

Deadly riots are common in Venezuela’s lawless prisons, where inmates often openly wield machine guns and use drugs. But the death toll from Wednesday’s riot in the decrepit city of Valencia, once a thriving industrial hub, was the worst from such an incident in more than two decades.

The public prosecutor put the number of people who died at 68, including two women who were visiting inmates.

Wailing families demanding information outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas on Wednesday. But the scene in the city, about 90 miles west of Caracas, was quiet and mournful on Thursday. About 100 largely poor Venezuelans waited to collect bodies.

“What we know is that there was a fire and the boys were burned,” said construction worker José Hernandez, whose 24 year-old son Jefferson died in the flames.

Jefferson, the youngest of his three children, had been arrested on drug charges, Hernandez said, adding, “What we want is justice and clarity on what happened.”

Prison violence has been an issue in Venezuela for decades. Late leftist leader Hugo Chavez once described the problem as the world’s most “savage” and promised to clean it up.

But opposition politicians said the disaster was another sign of the ruling socialists’ incompetence in a country that is deep in economic crisis and is plagued with food shortages, hyperinflation, and rampant crime.

“The only culprit is the government, which keeps a huge quantity of prisoners crammed together in police office cells for a long time in inhumane conditions,” said opposition lawmaker Yajaira Forero.

In Geneva, the United Nations human rights office called on authorities to carry out a speedy investigation.

“We urge the Venezuelan authorities to carry out a prompt, thorough and effective investigation to establish the cause of these deaths, provide reparations to the victims’ families, and, where applicable, identify and bring those responsible to justice,” the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement voicing concern at prison conditions.