Prison closed as 61 inmates die in riots


Venezuelan authorities have removed all the inmates from one of the country’s biggest prisons yesterday, after more than two days of gunfights and rioting left 61 people dead and more than 100 injured.

The killings, which were sparked by an attempt to confiscate illegal weapons at the notoriously overcrowded Uribana jail, pose a serious challenge for a government whose ailing leader, Hugo Chávez, has not been seen since he flew to Cuba six weeks ago for cancer surgery.

Local media said the search had been planned for dawn on Friday at the prison in the western city of Barquisimeto, but the heavily armed inmates resisted, sparking one of the deadliest riots in the country’s history. After two days of sporadic shooting and reports of killings by inmates, authorities closed the prison.

Gunshot wounds

The director of the city’s Central hospital, Dr Ruy Medina, told the AFP news agency that his facility had received nearly 90 injured men, all of them suffering from gunshot wounds.

Medical authorities say the death toll has now climbed to 61 and could rise further.

Iris Varela, Venezuela’s penitentiary services minister, said the decision to search and disarm the men had been taken after authorities learned that rival gangs were preparing to confront each other in order to seize control of the facility. She said the element of surprise was lost, however, because reporters gave advance warning of the search.

“This Friday we were surprised by the information announced on [the private television channel] Globovision, social network sites and the web page of El Impulso newspaper,” said Ms Varela, who called the reports an “obvious trigger for violence”.

Deeper problem

However, civil rights activists said the inmates and their relatives had long anticipated the government’s plan. The deeper problem, they said, was that authorities used a disproportionate amount of force in a prison that was at breaking point. Venezuela’s prison system is among the most violent and overcrowded in the world. – (Guardian service)

Hugo Chávez: ‘will take charge again’

President Hugo Chávez is experiencing the “best moment” yet of his recovery from cancer surgery, according to Venezuela’s vice-president Nicolas Maduro.

He emphatically added that Mr Chávez would return to Venezuela and take charge of the government again. Mr Maduro spoke on Saturday on his return from Cuba, where Mr Chávez had surgery on December 11th.

“The commander is in the best moment that we have seen him in all these days of struggle and battle,” Mr Maduro said. “He is smiling, he has a look full of light, he has a special illumination in his thought.”

He said he was “holding tight to Christ and to life”. He predicted Mr Chávez’s return, without saying when that might be. – (New York Times service)