CARACAS, Venezuela – The death toll has risen to 61 following fierce gunbattles between inmates and National Guard troops at a Venezuelan prison, a hospital director said Saturday. About 120 more people were wounded in one of the deadliest prison riots in the nation’s history.
Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela said Saturday that officials had begun evacuating inmates from the Uribana prison in Barquisimeto and transferring them to other facilities, but she did not provide an official death toll.
However, Dr. Ruy Medina, director of Central Hospital in the city of Barquisimeto, told the Associated Press that the number of dead had risen to 61 in the Friday uprising.
Medina said nearly all of the injuries were from gunshots and that 45 of the estimated 120 people who were wounded remained hospitalized. Some underwent surgeries for their wounds.
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 national crisis in its penitentiaries.
The gunbattles seized attention amid uncertainty about President Hugo Chavez’s future, while he remained in Cuba recovering and undergoing treatment more than six weeks after his latest cancer surgery.
Government officials pledged a thorough investigation, while some critics said there should have been ways for the authorities to prevent such bloodshed.
Nayibe Mendez, the mother of a 22-year-old inmate in the prison, told the AP that she was able to talk by phone with her son and he was uninjured.
“What they say is that there were shots all over the place, and they don’t know where they came from,” Mendez said. “It was a massacre.”
Varela said during a news conference that officials decided to evacuate all inmates from the prison in order to “close this chapter of violence.” She said victims had wounds from guns, explosives and knives or other sharp weapons made by the inmates.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro called the bloodshed tragic and said Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Diaz and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello would lead the investigation.
“The prisons have to be governed by law,” Maduro said.