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100 Plus Killed in Venezuelan Prison Riots

At least l09 prisoners have died and 54 remain injured after a group of inmates started a fire at Sabaneta prison in Maracaibo, Venezuela, on Jan. 3. Sabaneta prison is racially segregated, with about 800 Guajiro Indians on one side and some 2,000 non-Indians on the other. The fire was apparently started by a group of Guajiros, who attacked the non-Indian side, setting fire to two cell blocks. "It was an act of vengeance that was planned," said prison director Luis Zambrano, explaining that a Guajiro inmate was decapitated on Dec. 30 by the non-Indians.

Oswaldo Espina, an inmate who survived the Jan. 3 incident, said the Guajiros were armed with firearms, Molotov cocktails and knives, but added that the National Guard also attacked with gunfire and tear gas. According to AP, Justice Minister Fermin Marmol Leon did not confirm or deny that the National Guard may have shot some inmates. All the dead are believed to be non-Indians; Maracaibo's Justice Ministry says none of the Guajiros were hurt. Noeli Pocaterra, a spokesperson for the Guajiros, Venezuela's largest indigenous nation, disputed the official story on how the incident began: "It's very hard to believe the version that the Guajiros are to blame," she said

About 40 inmates escaped the next day from Tocoron prison in Maracay, 60 miles west of Caracas in Aragua state; 10 of the fugitives were subsequently shot and killed by the National Guard and another seven were captured, according to Dora Bracho Barreto, the national prisons director. And on Jan. 3, a few dozen inmates began a hunger strike to protest the Dec. 24 killing of a prisoner by a member of the National Guard; by Jan. 5, some 400 more had joined the hunger strike.

According to Agence France Presse, there were 3,600 inmates at Sabaneta prison, though it only has capacity for 800. (An AP article in the New York Times said the prison was built for 1,500 and actually housed 2,500). Overcrowding is a widespread problem; Venezuela's 33 prisons are filled to over seven times their capacity. Attorney General Ramon Escovar Salom accused past governments of having a "lack of political will" to address the situation; he said he had sent investigators to Sabaneta and Tocoron to report on the incidents. After a meeting with Lolita Aniyar, the state governor of Zulia, where Maracaibo is located, Marmol Leon said the prison system would be decentralized and the prisons would be put under the control of the state governments. Sabaneta prison, where 79 people were killed during 1993, is to be remodeled. Marmol admitted that only 9,000 of Venezuela's 26,000 prisoners have been tried and convicted; the rest are awaiting trial. (ED-LP 1/4/94 from EFE, 1/5/94 from AFP. 1/6/94 from AP: NYT 1/5/94 from AP. 1/6/94 from AP)

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