At least 68 people died when a fire appeared during a riot at a jail in the northern Venezuelan city of Valencia, the attorney general said late Wednesday.
The announcement came hours after crowds of anguished family members had collected outside the facility, some weeping and others facing off with police officers in riot gear. The Venezuelan news media reported that the police utilized tear gas. Officials had released little information throughout the day.
“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, the mother of a prisoner, the Spanish news agency EFE reported. “They haven’t told me anything.”
Tarek Saab, the attorney general, said four prosecutors had been named to investigate the circumstances that led to the deaths. All but two of the victims were men, he said.
“What we want is justice,” one relative, María José Rondón, said in a video posted to Twitter. “We want to know everything that is happening.”
Gunfire was reported as the rioting began, although the source and the reasons were unclear, and the fire erupted during the unrest.
The facility, attached to a police station, had a capacity of about 60 detainees, workers at the scene said. But Venezuela’s prisons are chronically overcrowded, with crumbling facilities and a shortage of personnel.
In 2015, the most recent year for which reliable figures are available, 49,644 people were incarcerated in prisons designed to hold 19,000 inmates, InSight Crime, a research organization, reported last year. An additional 33,000 people were held in temporary holding cells built for 5,000, it said.
Armed gangs control life in many Venezuelan prisons, and many people die in detention. More than 6,600 people died in the country’s prisons between 1999 and 2015, Human Rights Watch reported, citing data from the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons. Last year, a mass grave holding 15 bodies was found by construction workers at a prison in the state of Guárico.
At least 23 people were killed in weeks of battles between armed prisoners and Venezuelan security forces in a jail outside Caracas in 2011. Dozens were killed in clashes between prisoners between inmates and National Guard soldiers at the Uribana prison in Barquisimeto in 2013.