LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — A battle among rival gangs in a prison in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands Friday left 30 people dead, many burned to death, as witnesses said inmates used propane gas tanks as flamethrowers. Among the dead was an 18-month-old infant.
The carnage in Palmasola maximum-security prison outside the regional capital of Santa Cruz also left 60 people injured, as inmates in one cell block attacked a neighboring cell block with knives, machetes and canisters of gas, said Interior Minister Carlos Romero.
Romero said the fight was over leadership and space in the prison. Inmates in one cell block knocked a hole in the wall separating the two groups, and opened the valves on the gas tanks, using them as flamethrowers, he said. The straw mattresses used by the inmates caught fire and the flames spread.
“The victims were trapped in the fire,” Romero said. Palmasola is Bolivia’s largest prison and officials are calling it the country’s worst episode of prison violence.
Police and guards took several hours to put out the flames and control the violence, which took place in the prison wing that holds some of the prison’s most dangerous prisoners. Most of the dead were on the second floor of the two-story block, Romero said.
Among the dead was a one-and-a-half year-old child, authorities said. The United Nations complained to Bolivia’s government two months ago about its policy of allowing children through age 6 to live with parents in prisons.
By midday about a dozen children had been evacuated from the prison.
The local representative of Bolivia’s independent Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, Maria Inez Galvez, told The Associated Press that she and other members of her group who were allowed to enter the prison saw “bodies of burned men, some of the wounded with burned hands, others with burned faces.”
“We didn’t know how to begin to help,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. She said that when she arrived at 8 a.m. the worst of the wounded had been evacuated. Hospital officials said many had second- and third-degree burns.
“We also saw a man who had burns and got up and grabbed a police officer’s weapon in order to get taken to the hospital,” said Galvez.
She said there were not enough police available to escort wounded prisoners to hospitals to get medical attention.
Galvez said she was told the fight was over the refusal of the gang in one cell block to pay extortion fees to its rivals in the other cell block, who attacked around dawn while most inmates were sleeping.
Some inmates jumped off a second-story roof to save themselves. TV images showed naked inmates stretched out on the floor of a prison block, many complaining of burns, after police regained control of the prison.
Although no guns were seized, officials said they found bullet casings and witnesses reported hearing shots.
As in many Latin American prisons, inmates largely control the inside of Palmasola, which teems with some 3,500 inmates, more than four in five still awaiting trial.
Outside the prison, relatives of inmates wept and shouted demands for a list of victims. Some angrily complained to journalists that police did nothing to try to save the lives of burn victims.
Romero, the interior minister, presented to the media five alleged leaders of the riot and said that another 50 inmates are in isolation for their role in the violence.
He acknowledged that the inmates ran the prison internally and called for a reform to the penitentiary system to “recover state control.”
President Evo Morales expressed “consternation” over the deaths in a statement carried by the state news agency ABI, and said he was ordering a thorough investigation.
Weapons and drugs are typically available and businesses operate under the protection of gang leaders. Almost anything can be obtained in a prison like Palmasola for a fee, former inmates say, including cellphones and larger living spaces.
Associated Press writers Paola Flores in La Paz and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.