Distraught families gathered outside a police station in Venezuela demanding information after a fire in the cells killed 68 people.
Relatives of detainees fought with police outside the facility in Valencia, in Carabobo state, after local officials would confirm only that there had been deaths in Wednesday’s fire. Officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Venezuela’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, said late on Wednesday that 68 people died in the fire, nearly all of the prisoners.
The fire is said to have broken out after a disturbance involving detainees. Saab said four prosecutors would investigate the circumstances.
A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails and prisons, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated that a riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg.
Shortly after that a fire broke out and grew quickly as the flames 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.
It was one of the worst jail disasters in Venezuela, where human rights groups complain about poor conditions in jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.
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.
“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive,” said Aida Parra, who said she had last seen her son the previous day when she took food to him. “They haven’t told me anything.”
Carlos Nieto Palma, the director of A Window to Freedom, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address poor conditions in police station jails. He said overcrowding had become common throughout Venezuela, with detainees being kept long past customary brief holding periods before being let go or sent to larger jails to await trial.
“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.”
Juan Miguel Matheus, an opposition politician, demanded the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what happened. “The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian.