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68 died in a Venezuelan prison riot. Police tear-gassed their families for asking questions.

The most lethal prison riot in the country in two decades has sparked public outcry.

Venezuela’s prison fire killed 68 people — and put the spotlight on a systemic problem.
Venezuela’s prison fire killed 68 people — and put the spotlight on a systemic problem.
AP Photo/Juan Carlos Hernandez

At least 68 people died on Wednesday in Venezuela’s most lethal prison riot in two decades — and when distraught family members showed up at the attached police station demanding answers, police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The riot began on Wednesday morning in a jail in the northern city of Valencia, a once-vibrant industrial hub that has been devastated by the country’s multiyear economic crisis. The jail, which is attached to a police station, was designed to hold just 60 people. At the time of the riot, it contained around 200.

The incident has garnered international attention and highlighted Venezuela’s decades-long problem with subjecting prisoners to dangerous and inhumane conditions.

The New York Times reports that the chaos began when inmates took a prison guard hostage and threatened to kill him if their demands were not met. Some inmates set mattresses on fire, and the blaze quickly grew out of control.

Emergency workers created holes in the walls of the jail to let inmates out and to release the smoke, but dozens were trapped in the flames and died. Venezuela Attorney General Tarek William Saab said on Wednesday that four prosecutors would “clarify” what happened with an investigation.

But in Venezuela, the problem runs deeper than just one overcrowded jail — it’s a systemic issue throughout the country.

Venezuela has a serious problem with its prisons

Prison violence has been a huge problem in Venezuela for decades: The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the country’s iconic leftist reformer, once called prison violence in his nation the world’s most “savage.”

According to InSight Crime, an organization that tracks jail conditions in Latin America, nearly 50,000 prisoners were being held in prisons that were meant to house a maximum of just 19,000 inmates in 2015, the last year for which there is reliable data.

In many cases, jails that are meant to be temporary detention centers are used as prisons and don’t provide any food to the inmates. The inmates are forced to survive on what their families bring them, and sometimes guards charge visitors a fee just for bringing that food.

But the scale of the casualties in Wednesday’s incident — and the harsh police response — has caught the attention of the international community and human rights groups. The United Nations Human Rights Office called the deaths “horrific” and said it was “concerned” about the way security forces responded to mourners outside the jail.

“There is widespread overcrowding and dire conditions in Venezuela’s prisons and also in police jails, which are often used as permanent detention centers,” the UN Human Rights Office said in a statement. “These conditions, which often give rise to violence and riots, are exacerbated by judicial delays and the excessive use of pre-trial detention.”

It also called on the Venezuelan government to “adopt immediate measures to address the conditions of detention to ensure that they comply with international human rights norms and standards.”

The huge death count from the riot could deal a blow to Venezuela’s deeply unpopular president, Nicolás Maduro, as he prepares to run for reelection on May 20.

Maduro’s opposition has quickly seized on the riot as a symbol of the country’s decline. “How many more times are we going to see the same Dantesque scenes with the prisoners of the country?” Henrique Capriles, a former governor and influential opponent of the ruling party, tweeted on Thursday.

Venezuela’s economy is on the brink of total collapse. It has one of the highest exchange rates in the world, food and medicine shortages are rocking the country, and the state-owned oil company — Venezuela’s only real source of income — is in such bad shape that its production of oil is plummeting.

The prison incident only adds to the list of things going wrong.