CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan authorities on Thursday restored order at a notoriously overcrowded Caracas jail after shots rang out earlier in the day in the latest outbreak of violence in the country’s badly strained prison system.
Authorities are trying to close the chaotic La Planta facility, built in 1964 to house 350 inmates, which has housed nearly 2,500, many armed with heavy weapons.
Inmates have, however, been resisting closure for weeks, leading to a virtual siege with security forces ringing the jail and periodic clashes with relatives camped outside.
Shots rang out for two hours and smoke rose over the facility in the morning.
Prisons Minister Iris Varela said authorities had convinced a group of 100 prisoners to move to other facilities.
“We managed to reason with a significant number of people being held here, and they have already started to come out,” Varela told state television, showing images of prisoners walking past armed troops toward waiting vehicles.
“We hope to be finished with this in the coming hours, to completely evacuate the jail,” said Varela.
President Hugo Chavez’s government accuses opposition media of exaggerating and aggravating the situation.
Critics of the socialist president counter that his government has neglected the prison issue, especially during Chavez’s absence from public life for cancer treatment.
“The situation in La Planta is another example of this government’s failures on the issues of prisons and Venezuelans’ security,” said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who is running against Chavez in an October election.
Last year some 5,000 soldiers took a month to quell violence in another overcrowded prison where riots killed 22 people.
Relatives outside La Planta jail spoke of injuries and deaths inside during Thursday’s flareup. Varela said prisoners could have been wounded or killed but did not provide details.
´HELL IN PARADISE´
The South American nation’s prisons are notorious for the ease of access to weapons and drugs as well as mobile phones and computers hooked up to the Internet, allowing inmates easy access to the outside world, often to run criminal gangs.
The country’s 34 prisons house nearly 50,000 people, but were built for under a third of that, local rights groups say.
Hundreds die each year in riots and gang fights - 500 last year, according to a local prisons NGO - and the latest violence at La Planta left a district of Caracas virtually off limits for residents and motorists.
In perhaps Venezuela’s worst single prison incident, about 130 prisoners were burned or hacked to death with machetes during gang fights at Sabaneta jail in Maracaibo in 1994.
Two years later, authorities at La Planta locked a number of prisoners into cells before firing tear gas inside. A fire broke out, and 25 prisoners burned to death while guards looked on, local news reports said. The charred remains took a week to identify, their bones glued to the furniture inside.
On Thursday, explosions could be heard from within a police cordon round the prison, which is in the ironically named “El Paraiso” (Paradise) district of Caracas, surrounded by hillside slums. Shots sounded out for a couple of hours.
“Hell in paradise,” was how one local characterized it on Twitter.
Some relatives wore face masks to protect themselves against teargas swirling from the prison.
Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Brian Ellsworth, editing by Todd Eastham