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Outrage, Criticism of Government Follow Deadly Venezuelan Jail Fire

People grieve during the funeral of Javier Rivas, one of the inmates who died during a riot and fire in the cells of the General Command of the Carabobo Police, at the cemetery in Valencia, Venezuela, March 29, 2018.

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

There was a shootout with police at one point during Wednesday's disaster in the city of Valencia, some inmates' relatives and an injured inmate recounted. The badly burned survivor told a harrowing tale of seeing friends die before he managed to escape.

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

2 visitors among dead

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

Authorities had little comment on the disaster by Thursday afternoon. Maduro tweeted messages about the Easter holidays and his recent meeting with Hollywood actor Danny Glover but did not refer to the Valencia deaths.

The governor of Carabobo state, Rafael Lacava, issued a statement promising to investigate the incident, support bereaved families and improve prison conditions. The communique did not provide specifics, however, and the opposition slammed the central government for its silence.

"In the face of tragedy and pain over what happened in Carabobo, the government's silence and indolence indicates it is looking for excuses to hide its obvious responsibility," said Omar Barboza, president of the opposition-led Congress.

Security forces drew condemnation from many Venezuelans when they used tear gas on Wednesday to disperse wailing families who were demanding information outside the Valencia police station.

Relatives of inmates talk to a police officer as they wait for information after a riot and a fire in the cells of the General Command of the Carabobo Police in Valencia, Venezuela, March 29, 2018.
Relatives of inmates talk to a police officer as they wait for information after a riot and a fire in the cells of the General Command of the Carabobo Police in Valencia, Venezuela, March 29, 2018.

On Thursday, the scene in the city, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) west of Caracas, was quiet, mournful and desperate as about 100 largely poor Venezuelans waited to collect bodies or to verify that their jailed relatives were alive.

Shootout, panic

Homemaker Daniela Pastrana, her eyes bloodshot from tears and fatigue, said she had been trying since Wednesday night to identify the body of her husband, Endruver Torres. He had called her in a panic on Wednesday morning, saying there was a shootout in the cells, she said.

"We were on the phone and they were saying, '[Police are] shooting at us, they're throwing gasoline at us,' " said Pastrana, 32, who is expecting her fourth child.

She said authorities had told her the fire was sparked by a short circuit. "We know it wasn't a short circuit," Pastrana said angrily.

A representative for police in Carabobo state told Reuters he was not authorized to comment.

Three relatives of inmates confirmed Pastrana's version of a shootout, as did surviving prisoner Yorman Trejo.

Speaking to Reuters from a hospital bed on Thursday, Trejo recounted being awakened at 7 a.m. Wednesday by gunshots he said were being exchanged by police officers and prisoners. A fire broke out, too, spreading quickly in the overcrowded cells strung with hammocks.

The slim 28-year old, who had been in jail for a year, accused of theft, was badly burned and said he saw most of his friends die before he escaped through a hole in the wall.

"It hurts. ... But thanks to God I am alive," said Trejo, whose face and arms were scarred, as his wife blew flies off his face.

'Savage' problem

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.