After a tense day that saw grieving relatives desperate for news clash with police outside of the smoldering station, attorney general Tarek William Saab confirmed late yesterday that 68 people had been killed in the fire that broke out in the Carabobo State Police (PoliCarabobo) headquarters in Valencia during the morning hours.
Through a series of tweets posted on his official account at around 11:00 PM local time, Saab said that 68 people had been killed in the fire, and that he was assigning four prosecutors to investigate the circumstances of the event. Tarek clarified that two of the fatalities were women, which suggests that they were not inmates in the all-male facility.
At around noon yesterday, local media began reporting that a mutiny had been taking place at the PoliCarabobo headquarters on the Navas Spinola Avenue of Valencia since the early morning, and that a fire had broken out in the building. Preliminary reports suggested that as many as 78 people had been killed in the flames.
As the relatives of the jail inmates began to congregate in the vicinity of the headquarters hoping to hear news about the status of their loved ones, they were met by force as the authorities refused to provide timely updates on the event. Scuffles broke out between grieving relatives and police throughout the day.
Carabobo state governor Rafael Lacava alluded to the fire yesterday evening, and while he did not provide any concrete information on the event, he promised to launch an investigation into the matter. Lacava said:
I feel great dismay over what happened in Navas Spinola [Avenue] today. A serious and deep investigation has begun in order to find the causes and those responsible for this sad event. We stand by the families in their grief [and are ready to meet] their needs.
According to figures from local media, the PoliCarabobo jail house approximately 113 inmates at the time that the fire broke out. The surviving 47 inmates were transferred to other institutions earlier today.
First 45 Bodies Handed Over to Families
The bodies of 45 of the fire’s victims have already been handed over to their relatives, according to El Carabobeño.
The newspaper also claims that the authorities are asking the relatives of inmates to provide them with recent photographs of their loved ones in order to aid with the identification of the remains.
Aunt of Fire Victim: “This Was a Massacre”
Carmen Valera’s nephew is one of the people who died in the jail fire yesterday. Speaking to reporters this afternoon, Valera qualified the fire as “a massacre”, and suggested that the authorities doused the inmates with gasoline during the event. Valera also expressed her frustration with the fact that the Maduro regime has not been forthcoming with providing details about the fire, and blamed the Venezuelan authorities for treating reporters “badly” for “speaking the truth”.
Below, Valera’s comments along with my translation:
Carmen Valera: What happened there was a massacre. It’s not that they just died in a fire: they were set on fire, with gasoline. They shot at them as if they were dogs. This can’t be.
With the news here, you never find out about anything. In other countries, you can find out [what’s happening from the news]. I have a daughter who lives in Colombia, and she can find out what’s happening. But with this President [Maduro] here, we never find out about anything, because they hide everything. They treat you journalists poorly, because you speak the truth, and they try to hide it.
We have mothers, brothers, nephews here who don’t know what’s happening. No one knows anything. There are some women here who came from Maracay, and they can’t find out anything, if [their loved one] died or what. I’ve been waiting since 6:00 AM for them to hand over my nephew’s I.D. (…) and they still haven’t given it to me, because all they say is, “No, no, you have to wait”.
Relatives Suggest Fire Was Deliberate
Reuters spoke to some of the relatives of the fire victims, all of whom expressed a mix of outrage and grief at the fire that claimed the lives of their loved ones. Some of the individuals to whom Reuters spoke also suggested that the fire at the jail had been deliberately set by the authorities.
In an article published today, Reuters quotes a woman whose husband died in the fire as saying that shortly before he was killed, her husband told her that the authorities were dousing the inmates with gasoline. According to the article:
Homemaker Daniela Pastrana, her eyes bloodshot from tears and fatigue, said she had been trying since Wednesday night to identify the body of her husband, Endruver Torres. He had called her in a panic on Wednesday morning, saying there was a shootout in the cells, she said.
“We were on the phone and they were saying ‘(the police) is shooting at us, they’re throwing gasoline at us,’” said Pastrana, 32, who is expecting her fourth child. She said authorities had told her the fire was sparked by a short circuit.
“We know it wasn’t a short circuit,” said Pastrana angrily.
Reuters also spoke to a survivor of the fire, a man named Yorman Trejo. According to Reuters:
Speaking to Reuters from a hospital bed on Thursday, Trejo recounted being awoken at 7 a.m. on Wednesday by gun shots he said were being exchanged by police officers and prisoners. A fire broke out too, spreading quickly in the overcrowded cells strung with hammocks.
The slim 28-year old, who had been in jail for a year accused of theft, was badly burned and said he saw most of his friends die before he managed to escape through a hole in the wall.
Lacava Promises to Back Investigation
Governor Lacava said in a press conference today that he fully supported attorney general Saab’s investigation into the PoliCarabobo fire, and suggested that the fire may have involved criminal behaviour.
We will fully support the legal actions that [attorney general] Dr. Tarek William Saab has initiated through the assignment of four prosecutors to proceed with the investigation, [in the hopes of] establishing the events and reveal those responsible, who should pay for the crimes committed either through action or omission.
During the same press conference, Lacava said that his office would create a “Superior Council for State Security”, a body which he claims will work with state institutions to propose ways to ease prison overpopulation.
Lacava also called on Venezuelans to avoid placing blame of the fire on the Maduro regime or its policies:
Let’s not politicize this event. Instead, let us keep fighting for the well being and for the judicial and social security of every citizen.
National Assembly To Launch Investigation
The opposition-controlled National Assembly announced today that it would launch its own investigation into the PoliCarabobo fire, and demanded that Minister of Penitentiaries Iris Varela comment on the fire.
National Assembly deputy Juan Guaido called the fire “a tragedy”, “a massacre”, and “an atrocity”, and vowed that the legislature’s investigation would be “exhaustive”.
Deputy Adriana Pichardo tweeted the following message on the fire:
We reiterate our call for Minister of Penitentiaries [Iris Varela] to resolve the prison crisis that violates the human rights of those who are in custody, [as well as those of] administrative personnel and [prison guards]. What happened at PoliCarabobo is unacceptable.
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