According to Venezuela's Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab two women and 68 men were killed in the blaze. Families hoping for news outside the Valencia police station were dispersed with tear gas.
Rioting and a fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station in the central city of Valencia killed 68 people on Wednesday, according to the government and witnesses.
Families hoping for news outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas and authorities did not give information until late into the evening.
“The State Prosecutor’s Office guarantees to deepen investigations to immediately clarify what happened in these painful events that have left dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning,” said Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab on Twitter.
1) El @MinpublicoVE informa a la opinión pública que ante los terribles hechos acaecidos en la Comandancia d la Policia del Edo Carabobo, donde por un presunto incendio fallecieron 68 personas:HEMOS DESIGNADO 4 FISCALES ( 3 reg y 1 nac) para esclarecer estos dramáticos hechos— Tarek William Saab (@TarekWiliamSaab) March 29, 2018
State official Jesus Santander said the state of Carabobo was in mourning after the incident in the city of Valencia.
"Forensic doctors are determining the number of fatalities," Santander said. A policeman was shot in the leg and was in a stable condition and firefighters had extinguished the flames, he said.
Many Venezuelan prisons are lawless and have been for decades. Prisoners often openly wield machine guns and grenades, use drugs and leave guards powerless.
"There are people who are inside those dungeons (...) and the authorities do not know they exist because they do not dare to enter," said Humberto Prado, a local prisons rights activist.
The scant information came hours after a large crowd of angry relatives demanding to know if their loved ones had survived clashed with officers in riot gear. Police launched tear gas to disperse the crowd of screaming men and women in Valencia, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas.
"I don't know if my son is dead or alive!" cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son a day before, when she went to deliver him food. "They haven't told me anything."
A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela's jails, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.
Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off.
A Window to Freedom's director, Carlos Nieto Palma, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address deteriorating conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout the country as detainees are kept long past customary brief holding periods before being sent to other larger jails before trial or freed.
Grave and alarming
"It's grave and alarming," Nieto Palma said. "What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that."
Outside the police station, some relatives buried their hands in their faces as tears streamed down their cheeks. Others had to be held up with the support of friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Still others wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.
Nearby, National Guard troops wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying rifles across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside, and unused stretchers leaned against a wall.
Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what had happened.
"The desperation of relatives should not be played with," he said.
Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela. Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.
Riots leaving dozens dead are not uncommon.