CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's government is facing mounting criticism from activists and the U.N. human rights office for its handling of the country's overcrowded and violent prisons following a clash between inmates and troops that left at least 58 dead.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern on Tuesday about "an alarming pattern of violence in Venezuelan prisons, which is a direct consequence of poor conditions."
The government said the violence erupted Friday at Uribana prison in the city of Barquisimeto when armed inmates clashed with National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection. Nearly all those killed were prisoners.
"We call for prompt and effective investigations into this incident," Colville said at a news conference in Geneva. "We also call on the Venezuelan government to adopt urgent measures to ensure that conditions of detention comply with international human rights standards."
The U.N. human rights office noted that guns are widespread in Venezuelan prisons and violence is frequent. It said government authorities bear responsibility for what happens to inmates.
A group of Venezuelan human rights groups sent a complaint about the latest prison violence to international bodies including the U.N. human rights office and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The rights groups called it a massacre and said those responsible should be punished.
"This is the absolute responsibility of the state," said Carlos Nieto, an activist who leads the group Una Ventana a la Libertad, or A Window to Freedom.
"The information we have is that officials ... started to fire at inmates and they responded," Nieto said.
He and other activists who sent the complaint said that clearly the authorities had used excessive force. Activist Rocio San Miguel called that "morally unacceptable."
The victims included 56 inmates, a National Guard soldier and a Protestant pastor, Nieto said. The human rights groups also presented to Venezuelan prosecutors a document demanding a thorough investigation, something the government has promised.
Nieto said the responsibility falls on the government and Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro defended the government's actions and said the "first steps" are being taken to improve the country's prisons.
"We have to succeed in bringing the country truly model prisons," Maduro said in a televised speech at a newly opened school. "It's a difficult issue, well, an unresolved issue. But we're going to solve it."
Violence has flared repeatedly inside Venezuelan prisons in the past few years. In August, 25 people were killed and 43 wounded when two groups of inmates fought a gunbattle inside Yare I prison south of Caracas.
In 2011, President Hugo Chavez created a Cabinet-level ministry to focus on prisons and appointed Varela to lead it. The president made that decision following a deadly, weekslong armed uprising at the prisons El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II outside Caracas.
Since then, though, activists and government opponents say Chavez's administration hasn't made real progress at penitentiaries where hundreds continue to die each year and where inmates obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards.
Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado asked in a message on Twitter: "Who's responsible for the crowding and the weapons that enter the prisons?"
Such questions have been echoed by many critics in Venezuela who say the government has failed to get a grip on the problem even after 14 years in office and billions of dollars in oil earnings.
Venezuela has 32 functioning prisons built to hold about 12,000 inmates. Officials have said the prisons' population is currently about 47,000.
Uribana prison was built to hold about 850 inmates. Varela said that when the violence erupted last week, the prison held about 2,400.
She said the violence began when groups of prisoners had started firing at National Guard troops "on a large scale."
Maduro expressed full support for Varela, and said he sent condolences to victims' families.
He also said the socialist government is trying to create a new sort of prison system and blamed the "values of capitalism" and violent content in movies and TV shows for leading young people toward crime and violence.
He said the authorities have recently carried out 86 prison inspections as they seek to crack down on armed groups.
Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said the government is working to both assert control over prisons and improve conditions. He said criticisms of its actions have been off-base.
"It can't be permitted for there to be zones that are under the control of armed mafias," Villegas said on television. "There is an uncomfortable situation here, in which there is questioning if action is taken and also if no action is taken."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.