CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Twenty-five people were killed during a prison riot and dozens wounded when two groups of inmates waged a gunbattle inside the penitentiary while hundreds of relatives were visiting, Venezuelan officials said yesterday.
The violence erupted at Yare I prison south of Caracas on Sunday, and at least one of those slain was a relative of an inmate, said Iris Varela, the government's prisons minister.
It was the latest and deadliest in a series of bloody clashes that have flared in Venezuela's overcrowded prisons and become a major problem for President Hugo Chavez's government.
Varela told state television yesterday afternoon that 17 of the 25 dead had been identified so far. She said some of them had been shot multiple times in the head. Forty-three other people were wounded, including 29 inmates and 14 visiting relatives, Varela said.
About 900 women who were at the prison to see inmates when the fighting broke out were still inside, she said. It wasn't immediately clear why they weren't coming out.
Varela indicated the situation had stabilised by yesterday morning and said authorities planned to talk with inmates "to try to impose order there." The mother of one prisoner said armed inmates still held the facility.
Varela said those behind the killings "are going to have to answer for this." She didn't provide details about how the inmate's relative died.
Carlos Nieto, an activist who monitors human rights in Venezuelan prisons, said the gunbattle lasted about four hours and involved groups fighting for control.
Yajaira Morroy, the mother of a 27-year-old inmate at the prison, said her son suffered a gunshot wound in a leg and had been trying to help a relative of another inmate who was wounded and then died. She said her son managed to reach a guard post and was taken to a hospital.
Morroy said during a telephone interview that the situation inside the prison had calmed and that some relatives who had been stranded inside were able to come out. But she said that armed inmates were still in control of the facility and that National Guard troops had not gone inside.
Nieto said the riot shows that the "most serious prison problem, the weapons possessed by inmates, hasn't been solved." He noted that less than a month ago, another bloody riot erupted at another prison in Merida state.
Violence has proliferated inside Venezuela's prisons, where inmates often obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards.
The watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory says 560 people were killed in Venezuelan prisons last year. It also says the pace of the violence increased during the first half of this year, with at least 304 inmates killed.
Venezuela currently has 33 prisons built to hold about 12,000 inmates, but officials have said the prisons' population is about 47,000. Hundreds are held in Yare I, though a precise count wasn't immediately available.
Following a deadly armed uprising last year in the prisons El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II, just outside Caracas, Chavez announced plans for changes to the country's troubled penal system including building new prisons, improving conditions and speeding trials for inmates who have yet to be sentenced.