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Originally published Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 1:39 PM

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Group: 591 killed in Venezuela prisons last year

Venezuela's latest bloody prison clash came after a year in which 591 inmates were killed in the country's troubled prisons, the deadliest toll yet during President Hugo Chavez's 14-year government, a watchdog group said Thursday.

Associated Press

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CARACAS, Venezuela —

Venezuela's latest bloody prison clash came after a year in which 591 inmates were killed in the country's troubled prisons, the deadliest toll yet during President Hugo Chavez's 14-year government, a watchdog group said Thursday.

The Venezuelan Prisons Observatory released last year's death toll nearly a week after fierce gunfire erupted at Uribana prison in the western city of Barquisimeto. The government said 58 people were killed on Friday when armed inmates clashed with National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection. Nearly all of those killed were prisoners.

The number of deaths in prison riots and other violence in 2012 was up about 5 percent from the previous year, and up about 24 percent over the number killed in 2010. The group also said 1,132 inmates were injured in prison violence during 2012.

Human rights groups called for a thorough investigation into Friday's violence and said the authorities used excessive force.

The riot was the latest in a series of deadly clashes in Venezuela's overcrowded and often anarchic prisons, where inmates typically obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. Critics called it proof that the government is failing to get a grip on a worsening crisis in prisons where heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, said that his group's records show 5,667 inmates were killed in the country's prisons between 1999 and last year.

"The state contributes to them being violent. One, because it contributes to the traffic of weapons and drugs inside prisons, and two, because it makes prisons inhospitable," Prado said at a news conference.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro pledged to redouble efforts to improve the prisons and called for a high-level investigation.

Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela defended the authorities' actions in the latest violence and said groups of prisoners opened fire "on a large scale." She said the government decided to send troops to search the prison after reports of clashes between inmates during the previous two days.

Emergency workers carried bleeding inmates to ambulances after the gunfire, while relatives of the prisoners wept outside, some collapsing with grief.

In one photograph amid the chaos, a bloodied inmate was sprawled face-down in the back of an ambulance, his arm dangling out the door.

After the violence, the government order more than 2,000 inmates evacuated from the prison and transferred to other facilities. Before they agreed to come out, some inmates set a fire in a prison yard where there were crudely built shacks made of wood and sheets of zinc, apparently burning potentially incriminating belongings.

Varela toured the smoldering prison yard last weekend, saying the government is fighting "mafias" within the penitentiaries. As for the now-empty Uribana prison, she said, "it became an icon of violence in Venezuela."

Prado disputed the death toll provided by the government, saying his group tallied a higher toll of 63 victims after visiting the morgue, the hospital and receiving accounts from victims' relatives. He said 61 of those killed were inmates, and that one National Guard soldier and a Protestant pastor also were slain.

It was the deadliest spasm of prison violence in Venezuela since 1994, and the latest in a series of deadly clashes 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, 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 Varela assumed her post, 869 inmates have been killed, Prado said. He and other activists charge that the new government ministry hasn't made real progress in addressing the crisis.

Venezuela has 33 functioning prisons built to hold about 16,000 inmates, and are packed with more than 48,000 inmates, Prado said.

Uribana prison was built to hold about 850 inmates. Varela said that when the violence erupted last week, the prison held about 2,400.

This week, the government extended for three months a previously declared emergency in the prison system, in a step that Varela said would speed construction of new prisons. The authorities have not recently showed any new prisons under construction.

In most of the country's penitentiaries, National Guard troops remain outside while the authorities largely leave internal control of the facilities to groups of inmates, some of them heavily armed. In recent search of prisons, the authorities have reported finding assault rifles, submachine guns, handguns and grenades.

Prado said that National Guard soldiers are often to blame for allowing guns inside.

"An important step has to be taken, and it's taking the National Guard out of the prisons," Prado said. "Who has the responsibility at the outside gate? It's the National Guard."

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