Worst prison tragedy in 24 years
By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS -- At least 68 men and women died in what authorities are describing as a “presumed fire” inside a makeshift prison in Central Venezuela, acting Attorney General Tarek William Saab confirmed early on Thursday.
Adding to the tragedy, no official information was given during the first twelve hours of the event, which began Wednesday morning at the Carabobo state police headquarters. Even worse, as thick black smoke was billowing from the building, police attacked journalists and prisoners’ relatives with tear gas and riot gear, forcing media workers to erase pictures, video and audio, the SNTP media workers’ union reported Thursday.
“So, there was a riot inside the prison and a riot outside the prison”, was how a local correspondent described the events to the BBC Wednesday night.
The official tally came from Saab in a tweet published at midnight. 66 inmates and two women who were in overnight conjugal visits died in the tragedy. Carabobo state governor, pro-Maduro politician Raffaelle LaCava, was not even in the country when the tragedy began according to local media: his first, oblique tweet promising an investigation arrived shortly before Saab’s.
“PENALCITOS”: MAKESHIFT JAILS
The existence of 500 improvised detention centers is at the root of the latest tragedy, Carlos Nieto, a lawyer and head of the “Ventana a la Libertad” NGO told LAHT during a phone interview.
“There are 100,000 inmates in Venezuela. Almost half of them in 500 of those ‘penalcitos’ (little penitentiaries) . They are police headquarters or precincts where an inmate can be held for 48 hours tops, or release, or arraigned, but prisoners end up living for months there, most times without a firm sentence”, Nieto said. “The places are badly overcrowed. PoliCarabobo is meant to hold 35 inmates, and there were more than 200 prisoners there”.
SAAB: DIVISIVE FIGURE IN AND OUT
Saab said he has appointed four government attorneys (three regional and one national) to investigate the tragedy, the worst since over 100 inmates were killed in Sabaneta, Zulia, in 1994.
Acting (Switzerland calls him “de facto”) Attorney General Saab is, to say the least, a divisive figure in Venezuela: part of the “hateful six”, Saab is one in a handful of Venezuelans officials (81 have received some sort of sanction so far) that have been sanctioned by both the US, the European Union, Canada and Switzerland for alleged involvement in human rights abuses and erosion of democracy and institutions in Venezuela. Saab was appointed by the Constituent Assembly, a supra-Constitutional body that answers only to Maduro and which the opposition and the international community also say was fraudulently constituted.