At least 37 were killed as a prison in southern Venezuela exploded into rebellion, authorities said on Wednesday. The death toll at the facility in the jungle town of Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas state, was first reported by the advocacy group Venezuelan Prison Observatory and later confirmed by the Interior Ministry.
The violence began when inmates seized the facility, and security forces were sent in to retake it.
Guards were met with gunfire and explosions when they tried to restore order. The Interior Ministry said 14 security officers were among the wounded, although none were killed.
The Puerto Ayacucho prison is a small one, and officials atypically said it was not overcrowded, holding only some 100 inmates. But most of the inmates there are being held without charge under “preventative detention”—a practice that prisoners’ rights groups have long protested as abusive.
“This is the worst riot we have had in a preventative detention center,” said Carlos Nieto, leader of advocacy group Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom).
Nieto told AFP news agency that under Venezuelan law, “preventative detention” can only last 48 hours before detainees are formally charged, brought before a judge or released. Yet many of those at the Puerto Ayacucho facility have been held for years.
Many of Venezuela’s prisons suffer from overcrowding and are dominated by criminal gangs that traffic in drugs and weapons, continuing to run their criminal networks even beyond prison walls. The country’s prison system, built to hold around 16,000, is now estimated to house some 50,000.
Harsh conditions and endemic violence in Venezuela’s prisons have led to repeated protests by inmates and their families.
The practice of preventative detention has been harshly criticized across Latin America, from Bolivia to Mexico. A steady stream of violent conflagrations in recent years are pressing evidence of a dire prison crisis in Latin America—fueled by the hemispheric War on Drugs, which even anti-imperialist Venezuela has really not broken from.