At least 51 dead in prison riot fire in Colombia - prisons agency

The director of the INPEC prison agency told local radio a fire started during a protest by prisoners.

 Clothes hang outside cells of La Modelo jail in Bogota February 19, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS/John Vizcaino)
Clothes hang outside cells of La Modelo jail in Bogota February 19, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS/John Vizcaino)

At least 51 prisoners died after a fire started during a prison riot in the southwestern Colombian city of Tulua, the head of the national prisons agency said early on Tuesday, one of the worst incidents of recent prison violence in the country.

"It is a tragic and disastrous event," General Tito Castellanos, director of the INPEC prison agency, told local Caracol Radio early on Tuesday. "There was a situation, apparently a riot, the prisoners lit some mattresses and a conflagration occurred."

Castellanos later confirmed a death toll of 51 people - 49 who died in the prison and two who died after being taken to hospital.

"Unfortunately the majority of the dead died because of smoke inhalation," he told Caracol. "We have two (injured people) who have been sent to Cali. Right now their diagnosis is with the doctors and we expect a report."

Twenty-four people are being treated in hospital and the fire was put out by local firefighters, Castellanos added.

President Ivan Duque, who is on a visit to Portugal, said on Twitter the incident will be investigated.

"We regret the events in the prison in Tulua, Valle del Cauca. I am in touch with (General Tito Castellanos) and I have given instructions to carry forward investigations that allow us to clarify this terrible situation," Duque said.

Prison violence "obliges the complete re-imagining of prisons policy toward a humanization of jail and dignity for the prisoner," said President-elect Gustavo Petro, who takes office in August, on Twitter.

Conditions in South American prisons

The prison has a total of 1,267 inmates, he added, and the cell block where the fire occurred houses 180.

In Colombia, as in many Latin American countries, prisons are highly overcrowded.

 Inmates sit near the cell windows at a Colombian prison in the northern city of Barranquilla January 27, 2014. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER) Inmates sit near the cell windows at a Colombian prison in the northern city of Barranquilla January 27, 2014. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

Colombia's jails have capacity for 81,000 inmates but currently house about 97,000, according to official figures.

The Andean country released some prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic after some two dozen inmates were killed during protests in 2020 against crowded conditions and lack of services in jail.

Hundreds have died in prisons in neighboring Ecuador over the last year, in what the government there says is violence connected to drug gang competition and which it has failed to quell.