Merida, March 26, 2018, (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan authorities are investigating a fire which has caused the death of at least 66 males and 2 females as it engulfed the headquarters of Carabobo state police station in Valencia in the early hours of Thursday morning, plunging Venezuela’s third largest city into mourning.
According to official reports from the scene, the deceased died from burns and smoke inhalation. The number of injured has yet to be confirmed.
While further details remain unverified, prison-monitoring NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom) claimed that the fire began as some of the prisoners set fire to their mattresses and stole a gun from a guard in an attempt to escape the holding facility.
Witnesses reported hearing gunfire inside the prison, and families were quick to assemble outside. According to the witness accounts, rescuers broke through walls to assist those trapped inside. The police station has a capacity for 255 people.
Carabobo State Governor Rafael Lacava was quick to send his condolences to the families of the tragedy at the Navas Spinola Avenue police station.
“I feel a great dismay for all of the events of Navas Spinola. An earnest and profound investigation has begun to find the causes and responsibilities of these regrettable events. We are by the side of the families in their pain and needs,” he declared.
Jesus Santander, the regional government’s executive secretary, offered further information Thursday.
“Governor Lacava has left precise instructions to his team to fully attend to the families of the victims,” he stated.
“We are determining with precision the amount of deaths… We won’t present official figures [for now] out of respect to the families… [but] when the time is right we will inform regarding the total victims which regrettably have left Carabobo state in mourning today”.
For his part, Venezuela’s Attorney General, Tarek William Saab, took to twitter to inform the public that they had assigned 4 prosecutors (3 regional and 1 national) to clarify events.
He also vowed to “solve the question of responsibility where appropriate.”
Saab additionally indicated that his office is “carrying out the respective autopsies and will hand the bodies over to their families”, confirming the preliminary death count.
2) El @MinpublicoVE GARANTIZA que profundizaremos las investigaciones para esclarecer de forma inmediata estos dolorosos acontecimientos que ha enlutado a decenas de familias venezolan@s Así como establecer las responsabilidades a q haya lugar #DDHH
— Tarek William Saab (@TarekWiliamSaab) March 29, 2018
Venezuelan prisons have historically suffered from chronic overcrowding, which combined with slow and bureaucratic penal processing has led to holding cells such as those at the Valencia Police Station to be partially used as makeshift prisons.
Despite prison reform efforts by the government, including the decommissioning of numerous old facilities across the country, the construction of new prisons, and the installation of codes of conduct and daily regimes for inmates, recent prison tragedies have drawn attention to the need for stronger measures by authorities, especially in the dismantling of armed gangs inside the facilities.
In August last year, clashes between gangs and prison officials at Puerto Ayacucho in Amazonas State Prison left 37 dead and 14 wounded, and earlier this month 58 detainees escaped holding cells in Margarita Island Prison before being recaptured.