At least 52 inmates killed in Colombia prison riot and fire

TULUA, Colombia: At least 52 inmates were killed and 26 others injured Tuesday (June 28) after a fire broke out during a prison riot in southwestern Colombia, the national prison service said.

The tragedy occurred when inmate riots set fire to around 2 a.m. and tried to prevent police from entering their jailhouse in the city of Tulua, said Tito Castellanos, director of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC ).

“We have treated a total of 26 injured people and the death toll is 52,” Cristina Lesmes, head of the health department in Valle del Cauca, said on Twitter.

“We have people in very serious condition with extremely extensive burns,” she said.

Castellanos had previously listed the death toll from the “riots” at 49 with a further 30, including six prison guards, “injured and affected by the fire and smoke”.

The prison, which houses more than 1,200 inmates, was surrounded by police and soldiers.

“By setting fire to mattresses, they had not estimated what the consequences could be and unfortunately this has happened,” Castellanos told Radio RCN.

The fire was under control, according to the fire service.

By evening, forensic teams had entered the prison to try to identify the bodies.

Outside the prison, dozens of relatives gathered in hopes of information about their loved ones.

A prison official gave the waiting people an initial list of survivors.

“I don’t know anything, INPEC won’t let us in,” a tearful Maria Eugenia Rojas, whose son Luis Miguel Rojas is a prisoner in the pavilion where the riots took place, told Caracol television.

Lorena, who did not give her last name, told El Tiempo newspaper that she had spoken to her prisoner at dawn.

“It seems illogical to me that people locked in a building would have set fire to mattresses knowing they could have been burned,” she said.

“BROUGHT OUT BY A FIGHT”

Authorities had initially said they were investigating whether the incident took place as part of an escape attempt, but later said it was a riot.

“This situation was caused by a fight that broke out between inmates. One of the inmates – he was angry, upset – set fire to a mattress, which started the fire,” Attorney General Wilson Ruiz told W Radio.

There were 180 inmates in the prison section that was affected by the fire.

Castellanos praised the efforts of prison guards to bring the blaze under control and inmates to safety.

He said that without their intervention “the outcome would have been worse”.

Outgoing President Ivan Duque sent a tweet expressing his solidarity with the families of the victims.

“We regret the events in the prison in Tulua, Valle del Cauca,” Duque said.

“I have given instructions to clarify this terrible situation. My solidarity goes out to the families of the victims.”

President-elect Gustavo Petro also expressed his condolences, saying on Twitter that a “complete rethink of prison policies” is needed, taking into account the “dignity of the prisoners”.

“The Colombian state has seen the prison as a space for revenge and not rehabilitation,” added Petro, who won a round of elections earlier this month and will replace Duque on Aug. 7.

He also referred to a 2002 riot at the La Modelo prison in Bogota that left 23 inmates dead.

Fatal prison riots are not uncommon in Latin America. In neighboring Colombia, Ecuador, nearly 400 prisoners have been killed in six riots since early 2021.

The Colombian prison system has a capacity of 97,000 inmates, but is overcrowded with about 16,000, according to INPEC.

Tulua Prison is overcrowded by 17 percent.