VALENCIA, VENEZUELA - Authorities were investigating a riot and fire at a Venezuelan police station Wednesday where relatives said dozens of detainees were being kept in squalid conditions and were feared dead.
Officials offered no information on what happened or whether there were any casualties, and police clashed with relatives who gathered outside the station, demanding information on their loved ones.
Officers in riot gear formed a line with plastic shields blocking access to the brick building and at one point launched tear gas to disperse the crowd of screaming men and women in Valencia, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas.
"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."
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, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.
Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off.
Overcrowding called common issue
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 [state] is a sign of that."
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 bulletproof vests and carrying rifles across their backs walked in and out of the station. Firetrucks 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.