Relatives carry the coffin of Daniel Marquez, who died in a fire at a prison, up the stairs to the second-floor home of his family in Valencia, Venezuela, Thursday. A fire swept through a police station on Wednesday where prisoners like Marquez were being kept in crowded cells, becoming one of the worst jail catastrophes in Venezuela’s history. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Relatives demand answers after Venezuela jail fire kills 68

VALENCIA, Venezuela — It wasn’t long after Daniel Marquez’s family showed up at the Venezuelan police station jail where he’d been locked up for nearly a year awaiting trial when black smoke began billowing from the building.

Guards ordered them to flee, forcing them and other inmate relatives to watch in horror from afar as the flames quickly grew.

One day later, Marquez’s family took his blackened remains home in a simple wooden coffin, their despair as wide as the questions surrounding the blaze Wednesday that killed 68 people in one of Venezuela’s worst jail fires.

“He didn’t deserve to die like this,” Sorangel Gutierrez, Marquez’s sister-in-law, said as relatives wept before the casket of the 28-year-old father of two. His relatives say he was jailed because he couldn’t pay a bribe to an officer who found a photo of an illegal weapon on his cellphone.

Varying versions of exactly what happened inside the police station’s crowded jail cells circulated Thursday among relatives and human rights groups amid a deafening silence from officials, who have yet to provide a full account.

Marquez’s family said they received a call from him shortly before the fire claiming that guards were pouring gasoline in the cellblock, prompting them to rush to the police station detention centre.

However, other accounts from survivors and victims’ relatives indicated it was the inmates themselves who set the blaze in order to escape.

President Nicolas Maduro has not made any statement about the fire and loss of life, instead posting a video on Twitter of an encounter with U.S. actor Danny Glover and reminding Venezuelans there are hundreds of beaches and churches around the country where they can spend Holy Week celebrations.

The most substantial information authorities have released so far came in a series of three tweets from chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab, who said late Wednesday that 66 men, as well as two women who were visiting the jail, were killed.

He said four prosecutors have been assigned to determine what happened and who was responsible for the tragedy in Valencia, an industrial city in Carabobo state, 100 miles (160 kilometres) west of Caracas, the capital. He pledged a “thorough investigation to immediately shed light on the painful events that have put dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning.”

As Venezuela plummets into an economic crisis worse than the Great Depression, advocates say prisoners are facing especially dire conditions, going hungry in increasingly crowded cells. Inmates also frequently obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

“The negligence of authorities continues, causing deaths,” the non-governmental Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, said in a statement.

The United Nations’ human rights office said it was “appalled at the horrific deaths” and urged Venezuela to quickly address concerns like judicial delays, the excessive use of pre-trial detention and cramped quarters.

The death toll in Wednesday’s catastrophe surpasses nearly every recent mass casualty event at Venezuelan prisons and jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994. In 2013, 61 people were killed and over 100 injured, mostly from bullet wounds, after a riot in Barquisimeto.

Carlos Nieto, the director of A Window to Freedom, an organization that monitors prison conditions, told The Associated Press that accounts from survivors and victims’ relatives indicate the fire in Valencia began when inmates tried to kidnap two guards. Later they reportedly set some mattresses on fire in an attempt to force guards to open up the cells so that they could escape.

Nieto said officers should have opened the cells once flames began spreading.

“The ones that were rescued were saved because firefighters opened a wall from behind to get them out,” he said.

An estimated 32,000 detainees are being kept in Venezuelan police stations that are filled far past capacity, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory. The jail at the site of Wednesday’s blaze was built for 35 but at the time of the fire some 200 people were believed to be inside.

A report by the Observatory issued before the blaze found that in the first two months of 2018, 26 prisoners had died and more than 1,000 were participating in hunger strikes. The report included testimony from a prisoner who said he’d been forced to eat two dead rats after going long periods without food.

“The jails in Venezuela are a true hell,” wrote Humberto Prado, the group’s director.

Despite Venezuelan laws mandating that detainees be held for a maximum of four days after an initial arrest, relatives said many of the Valencia inmates had been jailed for far longer, waiting to be transferred to larger facilities.

Inmates’ relatives grew desperate on Wednesday as they showed up at the police station after hearing news of the fire, only to find a line of officers holding metal shields, blocking their access and giving little information. Angry relatives pushed up against them and officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus lambasted the pro-government leader of Carabobo state for taking so long to tell relatives what happened.

“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said.

On Thursday, the smell of smoke still wafted in the air and a white column at the police station’s front entrance was stained black from the fire.

Miles away in one of Valencia’s poorest, most dangerous neighbourhoods, Marquez’s relatives wailed in grief as several men struggled to carry the casket containing his blackened remains up the narrow steps of his two-story blue-and-white home.

His burned face could be seen behind a small piece of glass on the coffin.

“I want my dad,” his 13-year-old daughter Feliana cried, as she leaned into the casket to look at her father inside. “Why did he leave?”

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