Group: 591 killed in Venezuela prisons last year
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuela's latest bloody prison clash came after a year in which 591 inmates were killed in the country's troubled prisons, the deadliest toll yet during President Hugo Chavez's 14-year government, a watchdog group said Thursday.
The Venezuelan Prisons Observatory released last year's death toll nearly a week after violence erupted at Uribana prison in the western city of Barquisimeto. The government said 58 people were killed on Friday when armed inmates clashed with National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection. Nearly all of those killed were prisoners.
The number of deaths in prison riots and other violence in 2012 was up about 5 percent from the previous year, and up about 24 percent over the number killed in 2010. The group also said 1,132 inmates were injured in prison violence during 2012.
Human rights groups called for a thorough investigation into Friday's violence and said the authorities used excessive force.
The riot was the latest in a series of deadly clashes in Venezuela's overcrowded and often anarchical prisons, where inmates typically obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. Critics called it proof that the government is failing to get a grip on a worsening crisis in prisons where heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.
Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, said that his group's records show 5,667 inmates have been killed in the country's prisons between 1999 and last year.
"The state contributes to them being violent. One, because it contributes to the traffic of weapons and drugs inside prisons, and two, because it makes prisons inhospitable," Prado said at a news conference.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro pledged to redouble efforts to improve the prisons and called for a high-level investigation.
Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela defended the authorities' actions in the Uribana violence and said groups of prisoners opened fire "on a large scale." She said the government decided to send troops to search the prison after reports of clashes between groups of inmates during the previous two days.
Emergency workers carried bleeding inmates to ambulances after the violence, while relatives of the prisoners wept outside, some collapsing with grief. In one photograph amid the chaos, a bloodied inmate was sprawled face-down in the back of an ambulance, his arm dangling out the door.
After the violence, the government order all inmates evacuated from the prison and transferred to other facilities. Before they agreed to come out, inmates set a fire in a prison yard where there were crudely built shacks made of wood and sheets of zinc, apparently burning potentially incriminating belongings.
Varela toured the smoldering prison yard last weekend, saying the government is fighting "mafias" within the penitentiaries. As for the now-empty Uribana prison, she said, "it became an icon of violence in Venezuela."