At least 68 people, most of them prisoners, have died in a fire at a police station in northwest Venezuela, officials confirmed on Thursday. It is believed to have started with a riot.
The incident happened on early Wednesday when a fire broke out at the regional police headquarters in Valencia, which is the capital of Carabobo State and is located about 125 kilometers (78 miles) southwest of Caracas.
Prosecutor General Tarek William Saab confirmed on early Thursday that at least 68 people were killed in the fire, including 66 prisoners and two female visitors who were staying overnight. Another official said the death toll could be as high as 78.
Earlier, relatives who were trying to get information about the fate of their loved ones clashed with police after authorities refused to confirm the number of casualties. Riot police fired tear gas to disperse crowds of relatives who had gathered outside the police station.
The incident is believed to have started when one of the prisoners shot and injured a police officer, after which a mattress inside one of the cells was set on fire. The blaze spread quickly while prisoners were unable to escape.
Prisons in Venezuela are notoriously violent, overcrowded and filled with weapons and drugs. Wednesday’s incident is the country’s worst prison incident since 1994, when more than 100 inmates were killed in a riot and fire at a prison in Maracaibo.
Pre-trial detention centers often house more than 100 prisoners in cells which are designed for only 40 people, according to the nonprofit A Window to Freedom, which monitors jail conditions. Such centers are supposed to hold detainees for a maximum of 48 hours, but some prisoners end up staying for years.