Firefighters cover their faces from tear gas during a protest by relatives of La Planta prison inmates outside the prison in Caracas May 17, 2012. Riots erupted at La Planta on April 30 after a plan for a massive escape was discovered by guards, and confrontations are still ongoing between the prisoners and officials, Iris Varela, the prisons minister, said. Relatives of inmates are protesting as they are not allowed to enter the prison to visit inmates, and they are also demanding that the riots in the prison stop. (Photo : REUTERS/Jorge Silva)
Over 100 prisoners were moved out of La Planta prison in Venezuela by National Guard troops on Thursday night after a fire fight broke out between inmates and security forces. The firefight was the escalation of a three-week standoff between troops and inmates.
La Planta, built in 1964 to house approximately 350 inmates, currently holds 2,500 and many of them are armed. Authorities have been working to close down La Planta and close to half of the inmates have already been moved to other lockups.
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However, many inmates have resisted the transfers for the last few weeks escalating into a two hour battle with security forces. There is still confusion as to the actual cause of the battle. Some authorities claim that inmates set off grenades while some prisoners claim that the National Guard attacked them first. According to the Associated Press, an inmate named Darwin claims that the officials cut off electricity and water to the prison and subsequently fired at inmates.
Outside the prison, tensions rose between relatives of the inmates and the National Guard, forcing the troops to utilize tear gas and a water cannon to drive the relatives away. According to the Caracas fire department, approximately 70 people suffered breathing problems as a result of the tear gas. They were promptly treated by firefighters.
The battle was the latest in a series of prior firefights. On April 27, security forces foiled an escape attempt by inmates who had created a tunnel that led into a sewer. A few days later, a firefight erupted during another escape attempt. On May 8, another battle resulted in the death of a man living in a nearby apartment. He was killed by a stray bullet.
The battle is the latest in the ever present issue of overcrowded prisons in the South American country. Venezuela's 34 prisons were built to house about 12,000 inmates, but officials state that there are currently 47,000 living in the prisons. Violence is a common occurrence as prisoners have easy access to weapons, drugs, mobile phones, and even computers hooked up to the internet.
According to Venezuela Prisons Observatory, over 500 people died in Venezuelan prisons last year. Last year, 5,000 soldiers were brought in to contain riots in another overcrowded prison. The riots had killed 22 people. In 1994, 130 prisoners were burned and hacked to death during gang fights at the Sabaneta jail in Maracaibo.