CARACAS, Venezuela -- The unofficial death toll rose to 55 on Saturday from a ongoing prison riot as human-rights critics urged the government to improve Venezuela's overcrowded jails, described as some of the worst in Latin America.
National Guard members and police at midday were still trying to quell the riot at the Uribana prison in the western city of Barquisimeto, where violence broke out Thursday night when authorities began a search of cells for hidden weapons.
The prison is one of many severely overcrowded jails in Venezuela. It is reputed to be dominated by gangs whose tentacles extend to criminal enterprises across the country, including the sale of drugs and control of buildings and farms occupied by squatters.
Although the government has not released totals of dead and wounded, Raul Medina, director of Central Hospital of Barquisimeto, told reporters early Saturday that the toll was 55 dead. Other sources reported that 93 people had been wounded.
Many of the victims were disfigured and only 12 have been identified, Medina said.
Iris Varela, minister for penitentiary services, was scheduled to hold a news conference later Saturday, but issued a statement Friday in which she blamed local Barquisimeto media for announcing the prison search in advance. She also said many of the deaths were a “settling of scores” among rival prison gangs.
The Uribana jail has a long history of violence and appalling conditions. In a joint statement Friday, two human rights groups noted that the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in 2007 called on the government of President Hugo Chavez to take immediate steps to alleviate overcrowding and “avoid the loss of life” at the facility.
“Even then the court was asking the government to seize arms that were in the possession of the prisoners,” said the Venezuelan Prison Observatory and Federation of Colleges of Attorneys in their statement. Not just prisoners but guards and inmates’ families were unnecessarily at risk, the statement said.
The watchdog groups went on to criticize the abortive prison search for “excessive force” and for “not having been coordinated nor performed with the experts and methods called for.”