A fire during a prison riot in south west Colombia has killed over 50 people in one of the worst recent incidents of its kind in the country.
The director of the national prison system, Tito Castellanos, said the fire started after inmates at a prison in Tuluá lit some mattresses, sparking an uncontrollable blaze.
He said the prisoners wanted to stop the guards from breaking up the riot but did not consider the ‘consequences of how it was going to affect them’.
‘It is a tragic and disastrous event,’ he said.
‘There was a situation, apparently a riot, and the prisoners lit some mattresses and a conflagration occurred that unfortunately triggered the death of 49 prisoners.’
The death toll was later updated to 51.
Another 30 people were injured in the blaze, Castellanos said, and dozens more were evacuated.
He also said it was not currently clear if all those who died in the blaze were prisoners.
The prison has 1,267 inmates and the cell block where the fire occurred houses 180.
Prisons in Colombia are highly overcrowded, with capacity for 81,000 people but housing about 97,000, according to official figures.
President Iván Duque, who is visiting Portugal, tweeted that the incident would be investigated.
‘We regret the events in the prison in Tuluá, Valle del Cauca. I am in touch with Castellanos and I have given instructions to carry forward investigations that allow us to clarify this terrible situation,’ he wrote.
Some prisoners in Colombia were released during the coronavirus pandemic after more than 20 inmates were killed during protests in 2020 against crowded conditions and lack of health services.
President-elect Gustav Petro, set to take office in August after becoming the first leftist Colombian leader to be elected in over a century, tweeted that Prison violence ‘obliges the complete re-imagining of prisons policy toward a humanisation of jail and dignity for the prisoner’.
Meanwhile hundreds have died in prisons in neighbouring Ecuador in the past year, which the government claims is the result of violence between local drug gangs it has so far been unable to quell.
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