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Maria Martinez, left, mother of Jose Rafman and his wife Juanita Bracho, cry after learning he died in a fast-moving fire a day prior that swept through a police station where he was being detained, in Valencia, Venezuela, March 29, 2018. Relatives of 68 people killed in the fire at the Venezuelan police station jail waited Thursday for officials to turn over the remains of their loved ones.
Ariana Cubillos/AP

Fire Kills at Least 68 Prisoners Held in Venezuelan Police Station

As crime rates continue to skyrocket in Venezuela, some police stations are being used as de facto prisons. And yesterday, overcrowded conditions at one of these jails led to tragedy. 

On Wednesday, a fire set by inmates attempting to escape a converted prison in the city of Valencia killed at least 68 people, including two women visiting relatives, AP reports.  

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Now, local residents and international observers alike are calling for an investigation into prison conditions in the cash-strapped country

“I want justice for my son,” one father, Rocky Varela, told AP. “Those who did this should pay.”

On Thursday, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the incident, writing: “We urge the Venezuelan authorities to carry out a prompt, thorough and effective investigation to establish the cause of these deaths, provide reparations to the victims’ families, and, where applicable, identify and bring those responsible to justice.” 

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Outside of the confinement, crowds of relatives looking for loved ones were blockaded by police who wore riot gear and sprayed tear gas, NPR reports.  

“I am a desperate mother. My son has been here a week. They have not given any information,” one mother, Dora Blanco, said

These days, overcrowded prison conditions are not uncommon in Venezuela. BBC reports that holding cells meant for a maximum of 30 occupants often keep more than 100 prisoners at a time

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“It’s grave and alarming,” Carlos Nieto Palma, director of A Window to Freedom, which monitors prisons in Venezuela, said in a statement. “What happened today in [Valencia] is a sign of that.” 

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In 2016, the organization estimated that across the country prisons meant for 5,000 people held as many as 20,000

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The crisis in the country’s justice and penal systems has been brought on by rising levels of insecurity and poverty. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory found that Venezuela’s murder rate was the highest in the world. In addition, as many as four in five Venezuelans now live below the poverty level — which has forced some young people to join violent gangs, according to reports

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The prison fire comes just months before Venezuela’s May 20 presidential election, which has been boycotted by forces  who say the conditions for free and fair elections do not exist under the government of Nicolas Maduro. 

“The only culprit is the government, which keeps a huge quantity of prisoners crammed together in police office cells for a long time in inhumane conditions,” opposition party member Yajaira Forero said of the incident.