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Prison Director: ‘Wicked’ Guardsmen Started Fire That Killed 25 Inmates

October 23, 1996

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ National Guardsmen acting out of ``wickedness″ started the fire in a crowded jail cell that killed 25 prisoners, the national prisons director said Wednesday.

Three guards at La Planta jail _ including Capt. Osmen Martinez, the detachment’s leader _ fired tear gas and incendiary devices into two adjacent cells shortly after the 6 a.m. roll call on Tuesday, Antonio Marval said after interviewing inmates and jail officials.

All three guards have been detained, and could be charged with premeditated murder, Marval said. The guards have not spoken with reporters.

Lawyer Liliana Ortega of the human rights group Committee of Victims of 1989 called the fire ``tremendously depressing and pathetic.″

Prisoners in one cell broke through their locked gate and fled to safety. Prisoners in the other cell who could not flee through a small hole near the ceiling were burned to death.

Shots were fired during the blaze, and three inmates were injured, said Laurence Quijada, a lawyer with the Committee of Victims who interviewed survivors at the prison.

The incendiary devices may have been Molotov cocktails, Marval said. Molotov cocktails are crude bombs made of bottles filled with flammable liquid.

Authorities were conducting autopsies and other forensic tests to determine whether the victims were burned by a flammable substance.

The guards’ motives were unclear. Marval said only that they apparently acted out of ``wickedness″ and ``repression.″

Venezuela’s prisons are perhaps the worst element of a poorly functioning justice system. Jails are overcrowded, run down, ill-funded, poorly supervised and extremely violent, according to international human rights groups.

Most prisoners have not been convicted of any crime, and many spend years awaiting trial. Laws are widely ignored, police are poorly trained and paid, and bribes are common.

``The prison conditions in Venezuela, like the prison conditions in Brazil, are probably the worst in the hemisphere,″ said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch-Americas.

``The government of Venezuela could have prevented this kind of police action and brutality.″

President Rafael Caldera, Defense Minister Pedro Valencia and other ministers met to discuss the situation at Miraflores palace Wednesday.

``There are various versions. We still don’t know what is the (correct) version,″ Valencia said after the meeting.

Caldera called the fire ``a profound sorrow″ that should lead to a ``greater commitment by everyone to see how we can pull the administration of justice from the situation it’s in.″

Four women waiting at the prison gate Wednesday to see if their sons were all right said their children have spent at least a year in jail awaiting trial. None has been convicted of any charge, they said.

``Here, whoever doesn’t have money (for bribes) doesn’t go to trial,″ said Cecilia Rengifo, 53.

Josefina Maria Salazar, 62, left La Planta weeping. Her son Giovanni, 24, had not been found. Inmates told her he died Tuesday.

``They should punish those damned (guards) who killed them,″ she said before heading to the city morgue. ``They’re motherless.″

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