Distraught families are clamouring for information about detained relatives following a fire that Venezuela’s chief prosecutor says killed 68 people when it swept through the cells of the state police station.
Angry relatives fought with police outside the facility after being unable to get any information on casualties from Wednesday’s fire, which townspeople said erupted after a disturbance involving detainees.
Officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and local officials would confirm only that there were fatalities.
Late on Wednesday, Attorney-General Tarek William Saab said on his official Twitter account that 68 people were dead and nearly all of them were prisoners. He said the dead included two women who were staying overnight at the station, but he didn’t provide any further details.
Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened at the state police headquarters in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state about 160km west of Caracas.
It was one of the worst jail disasters in Venezuela, where human rights groups complain about poor conditions in prisons and jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.
With tears streaking cheeks, people waiting outside the station on Wednesday said dozens of detainees had been kept in squalid conditions and they feared the worst for their loved ones.
Some had to be supported by friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Some wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.
“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son the previous day, when she took food to him. “They haven’t told me anything.”
A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails and prisons, 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.
Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what 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.