Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2018.

Venezuelan blaze spotlights fire safety problem in Latin American prisons



At least 68 people, mostly prisoners, died in March when a fire tore through a detention center at a police headquarters west of Caracas, Venezuela. The blaze furthered frustrations for a public that finds itself gripped by a historic economic and political crisis.

The fire reportedly started during an attempted jailbreak, in which inmates set fire to their mattresses. At least 180 inmates were said to be crammed into the facility—three times its capacity. “The fire caused so much smoke that people started to die in the enclosed space,” Carlos Neito Palma, director of a nonprofit prison watchdog group, told the Washington Post.

The fire started just before visiting hours at the jail, and family members of many inmates were outside as the facility burned. Police drove them back with tear gas and rubber bullets as they frantically tried to locate their loved ones, leaving them furious with what they say is a deeply broken and corrupt system of law enforcement and government. “We’re not dogs or anything less. We want justice,” one woman, whose 26-year-old son died in the blaze, told the Post. “So many kids [are] left without fathers now. Guilty and innocent, it’s not fair that they die like that. Those responsible have to pay.” Another woman alleged in an interview with the press that police had thrown gasoline on the fire.

Prison fires are epidemic in Latin America. The deadliest prison fire ever occurred in Comayagua, Honduras, in 2012, claiming 361 lives. An NFPA Journal article published seven months after the fire calculated the likelihood of dying in a prison fire in Latin America at more than 200 times higher than in the United States. “Many of the worst fires in Latin American prisons are the result of overcrowding and lack of adequate levels of fire safety,” the article said. “Curtains and other combustible materials surrounding prison beds are common in Latin American jails, as are electrical appliances and the resulting overloaded electrical outlets.”

The best way to prevent these fires, the piece concludes, is through implementing codes such as NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images