Fast-moving fire kills 68 at Venezuela police station jail


VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — A fast-moving fire swept through a Venezuelan police station where prisoners were being kept in crowded cells, killing 68 people in one of the worst catastrophes involving the nation's prison system, authorities and relatives said.

Distraught families spent all day Wednesday clamoring for information and at times clashing with police equipped in riot gear outside the station until Venezuela's chief prosecutor declared on Twitter that 66 men and two women had been killed in the blaze.

Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened and who is responsible for the tragedy in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state 100 miles west of Caracas, the capital.

He added the nation's public ministry would "guarantee a thorough investigation to immediately shed light on the painful events that have put dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning."

Human rights groups immediately criticized Venezuelan authorities for failing to address the rapidly declining conditions in the nation's jails.

As Venezuela plummets into an economic crisis worse than the Great Depression, prisoners in often crowded jails are going hungry and have staged protests in recent months. Inmates are also frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

The Venezuelan Prisons Observatory said it had been warning for some time about situation at police station jails, where detainees are often kept far longer than the customary two-or-three day holding periods.

"The negligence of authorities continues causing deaths," the group said.

The death toll in Wednesday's disaster surpasses nearly every recent mass casualty event at Venezuelan prisons and jails on record. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.

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