Prison deaths spike in Venezuela's violent prisons
CARACAS, Venezuela -- The number of inmates killed in Venezuela's notoriously violent prisons soared to 560 last year, a watchdog group said Thursday.
The nonprofit Venezuelan Prisons Observatory said that was a 17.6 percent increase over 2010.
Venezuela's severely crowded prisons see repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs fight for control of cellblocks and sell weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt prison guards.
In statistics released Thursday, the group added that 1,457 inmates were injured during protest riots, gang-related violence and clashes with prison guards in 2011.
The Justice Ministry does not release official statistics regarding the annual number of deaths in prisons.
The government says Venezuela has more than 44,000 inmates in its 34 prisons. The prisons were built to hold about 12,500 inmates, according to Venezuelan Prisons Observatory.
President Hugo Chavez promised last year to fix the South American nation's corrupt and violent penitentiary system, swearing in congresswoman Iris Varela as minister for penitentiary affairs.
Chavez expressed optimism that Varela, who is also a lawyer and high-ranking governing party member, would help root out widespread graft and curb violence in some of Latin America's most violent prisons.
The president created the new Cabinet post shortly after inmates led an armed, weekslong uprising that caused seven deaths at the Rodeo I prison and adjacent Rodeo II lockup. Negotiations permitted a peaceful end to the 27-day uprising, which pitted rebellious prisoners against hundreds of National Guard soldiers sent to regain control of the prisons.
Human rights activists have strongly criticized authorities, including Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami, for failing to crack down on rampant corruption among National Guard troops who take bribes to let inmates obtain drugs, alcohol and weapons.
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