HIGUEY, Dominican Republic – Rival gangs battling over the drug trade in an overcrowded, vermin-infested prison set their bedding ablaze and blocked the entrance to their cellblock, killing at least 134 inmates in one of Latin America's worst jailhouse blazes.
Some died in a stampede to escape the flames after guards forced open the jammed door in the cellblock known as Vietnam, one survivor said, while others were killed by smoke inhalation.
Only 26 prisoners were rescued from the public jail in Higuey (search), 75 miles northeast of the capital on eastern tip of the island, said National Police Chief Manuel de Jesus Perez Sanchez. Eighteen were injured, four in critical condition, hospital officials said.
The disaster underscored the terrible prison conditions in the Dominican Republic (search), which has the most overcrowded jails in the Western Hemisphere, according to U.N. figures. Domingo Porfirio Rojas-Nina of the Dominican National Human Rights Commission said he has been complaining for six years that the Higuey prison "is the worst in the country. It is hell on earth. It is unfit for human beings."
Officials gave varying figures for the prison population, with one saying the burned cellblock held as many as 182. The confusion over the exact numbers illustrated some of the problems within the prison system.
Among the victims were four Americans from Puerto Rico (search) convicted of cocaine trafficking. Two died and two were injured, officials said.
The violence began when one inmate shot and wounded another Sunday night and dozens of members of three gangs began fighting for control of who would sell drugs and cigarettes, said national prison director Gen. Ramon de la Cruz Martinez.
Guards broke up that fight, but about 12:30 a.m. Monday, prisoners began rioting, setting fire to pillows and sheets, said police spokesman Gen. Simon Diaz.
The inmates had blocked the cellblock entrance to fight it out, said chief firefighter Nestor Vera.
"It's an incredible, mad thing," Vera said. "When we arrived, the door was blocked with the rubble from mattresses and wood beds the prisoners had used to seal the exit shut." They also damaged the padlock, he said, preventing a swift rescue.
Bodies were "piled up on top of each other" at the door, he said, apparently as the men struggled to escape.
Rescuers pulled 133 bodies from the block, Perez Sanchez said. Many were charred, but many died from inhaling smoke, Vera said.
One of the few to escape, Alexander Sanchez, said police fired tear gas before the fire began.
"When they finally opened the door, we all tried to get out but we didn't all make it, some got trampled to death," said Sanchez, 28, who has been waiting in jail two years to be tried for beating up a man in a dispute over a woman.
At the hospital, survivor Enrique Wilano, 27, said many were killed by gunfire and machetes. "They [members of one gang] didn't want us to leave. Everybody who tried to get to the door got shot or hit with a machete," said Wilano, who was hit by a bullet in the shoulder and slashed with a machete across one cheek.
Of the 18 injured, six were shot and 12 had cuts from machetes and burns, hospital officials said.
Jose Luis Dominguez, the police chief for internal affairs police chief, confirmed there were weapons inside the prison. "We're investigating how they got the pistol and machetes into the cell," he said. "Often machetes are snuck in but not firearms," he said.
The mother of one prisoner, Austacia Guerrero, said the cell was so overcrowded that inmates didn't have a chance. "They're like sardines in there. They can't move, so how are they going to get out?"
She spoke outside the hospital where officials had brought the bodies and covered them with tarpaulins. Family members looked for loved ones, wearing medical masks or sticking pieces of grass up their nostrils against the stench of burnt flesh.
"If he's here, I can't find him or identify him. All these bodies are burned," said Guerrero, 55.
Other relatives gathered outside the jail.
"I just want to find out if he's still alive," Porfirio Rodriguez, 52, said of his son, Ramon, who was convicted of smuggling migrants to Puerto Rico.
Police directed Rodriguez to a photocopy shop opposite the jail, where people paid nearly a dollar for the list of victims. Rodriguez bought his and walked away to read it in private. His son was listed among the dead.
"The government regrets this tragedy," said Vice President Rafael Alburquerque, who is acting president while Leonel Fernandez is in Spain attending an anti-terrorism conference. "We are truly shattered and I have spoken earlier with the president who told me to let the people of Higuey know of his profound dismay at this tragedy."
The blaze would be investigated by a five-member commission — the national police chief, interior secretary, governor of the Altagracia province where Higuey is located, the director of national investigations, and the prosecutor general, Alburquerque said.
Gang fights, escapes and riots erupt frequently at prisons across the region.
The Dominican Republic's 35 prisons were built for 9,000 prisoners but last year held more than 13,500, according to a State Department human rights report published last week.
The Vietnam block had a maximum capacity for 25 inmates and was so overcrowded that people slept on top of toilets.
Monday's fire had one of the highest tolls recorded in decades in the region. Last year, at least 103 prisoners died in a May prison riot and fire in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Officials blamed a short circuit, but gangs also allege that rival inmates threw gasoline into the cells and let them burn as officials stood by.
In the Dominican Republic, 30 people died in September 2002 at La Vega prison after mattresses were set ablaze in the facility built for 50 but housing 600.
Higuey, is a city in the wide coastal lowland of the southeastern Dominican Republic. Founded in 1502 by Juan Ponce de Leon, Higuey has long been a pilgrimage site known for its elaborate shrine of the Virgin Mary.