Colombia prison riot leaves 49 dead, say authorities

Fire started during protest by prisoners at jail in city of Tulua

Forty-nine inmates died during an overnight riot in a prison in the southwestern Colombian city of Tulua, the head of the national prisons agency said early on Tuesday, one of the worst incidents of recent prison violence in the country.

The director of the Inpec prison agency told local radio a fire started during a protest by prisoners.

“It is a tragic and disastrous event,” Gen Tito Castellanos, the head of Inpec, told local Caracol Radio. “There was a situation, apparently a riot, the prisoners lit some mattresses and a conflagration occurred with unfortunately triggered the death of 49 prisoners.”

Another 30 people were injured during the incident, Gen Castellanos said, and dozens evacuated.

The prison has a total of 1,267 inmates, he added, and the cell block where the fire occurred houses 180.

In Colombia, as in many Latin American countries, prisons are highly overcrowded.

Colombia's jails have capacity for 81,000 inmates but currently house about 97,000, according to official figures.

President Iván Duque, who is on a visit to Portugal, said on Twitter the incident will be investigated.

“We regret the events in the prison in Tulua, Valle del Cauca. I am in touch with [Gen Tito Castellanos] and I have given instructions to carry forward investigations that allow us to clarify this terrible situation,” Mr Duque said.

The Andean country released some prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic after some two dozen inmates were killed during protests in 2020 against crowded conditions and lack of services in jail.

Prison violence “obliges the complete re-imagining of prisons policy toward a humanization of jail and dignity for the prisoner,” said president-elect Gustavo Petro, who takes office in August, on Twitter.

Hundreds have died in prisons in neighbouring Ecuador over the last year, in what the government there says is violence connected to drug gang competition and which it has failed to quell. — Reuters