The news was appalling. On November 24, Venezuelan authorities announced that 13 inmates on a hunger strike stormed a prison infirmary and gulped down a deadly mix of pure alcohol and drugs used to treat epilepsy, diabetes and high blood pressure.
It was a voluntary mass drug overdose, officials said.
Ten days later, the number of dead at the David Viloria Penitentiary Center in Barquisimeto, a city in the western part of the country, has climbed to 42. Some 80 are still being treated for poisoning.
From the start, families and surviving inmates had trouble swallowing the official version of events. There is growing evidence, they say, that the inmates may have been intentionally poisoned by prison authorities.
“It might sound tough, but, according to what the prisoners and their relatives say, that's what has happened,” Carlos Nieto Palma, head of the non-government organization, Una Ventana a la Libertad (“A Window To Freedom”).
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“What the government says about a voluntarily drug overdose is not credible. For starters, at the infirmaries of Venezuelan prisons you can hardly find an aspirin,” he added.
According to fellow inmates, the victims were given a soup and a drink that made them sick. Moreover, according to Nieto, the prisoners targeted had an uneasy relationship with authorities at the facility.
“They were disturbing [the order] because they claimed their rights. They were protesting against the torture and abuse they were suffering from the director of the prison and other officials.”
Una Ventana a la Libertad is preparing a report to take the matter to Venezuela’s attorney general’s office, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States as well as the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture.
Nieto said that the prisoners in question had taken part in a protest over new regulations that limit women guests to one visit a month and don’t allow children or men to visit at all. Relatives were prevented from bringing food or personal items like soap or shampoo.
“It would be okay if the government provided the inmates with these goods, but that is not the case,” he said.
“The authorities were imposing some kind of military order. It is a system that’s only applied in countries like Communist China,” Nieto said.
Last August, another NGO watchdog group, the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), denounced this new code. “With this system they are trying to indoctrinate and militarize the inmates,” OVP director Humberto Prado said, “who are forced to give military salutes and to sing anthems of the government party,” the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
“All of this violates their constitutional rights and the international norms of human rights,” Prado said.
Venezuela’s prisons are among the most overcrowded in the world with an occupancy level of 315.8 percent of their intended capacity, according to the International Center for Prison Studies. They also have one of the deadliest track records in the world: 506 people died while imprisoned in the country in 2013, according to the OVP.
Unfortunately, Prado said, that number is likely to climb in 2014.
The inmates and relatives interviewed by the OVP also claimed that the prisoners who overdosed were poisoned, Prado told FNL. “For the sake of the investigation we are asking that the toxicological evaluation be carried out by an independent institution, not one that’s dependent on the government. It would give much more credibility to the judicial inquiry.”
Questions abound as to what exactly happened at Uribana last week.
About 3,500 prisoners went on strike on Nov. 24, asking for the dismissal of warden Julio César Pérez.
Two days later, reports about prisoner deaths began to come out. Prison officials apparently left the inmates alone in the penitentiary for some of that time.
Pérez was arrested last Friday, and the federal government sent in the National Guard and transferred many prisoners to other penitentiaries.
Prado told FNL, “Whether or not the inmates were poisoned, I think that the authorities acted with forethought. At some point, the officials exited the prison and left the inmates alone. How is that possible? What were they hoping for? Did they want the inmates to fight against each other? Why didn't they even care enough to protect the administrative offices as they usually would? Why didn't they ask for help from the National Guard if they lost control of the prison?”
Prado added, “The inmates were protesting because they were suffering tortures and no one showed up until it was too late. What we have witnessed is a massacre.”
Ángel Bermúdez is a reporter living in Caracas, Venezuela.