At least 49 prisoners die in riot and fire at Colombian prison

At least 49 prisoners were killed and dozens more were injured Tuesday morning after a fire broke out during a riot at a prison in southwestern Colombia, the national prisons agency said.

The tragedy occurred when rioting prisoners started a fire in an attempt to prevent police from breaking into their cage at the Tulua prison, said Tito Castellanos, director of the National Institute of Penitentiaries and Prisons (INPEC).

“Unfortunately, in the eighth pavilion of the Tulua prison, where there are 1267 prisoners, there was a riot that killed 49 people,” Castellanos told La W Radio.

He said another 30 people were “injured and affected by flames and smoke.”

Castellanos said authorities were investigating whether the prisoners set fire to their mattresses as part of an “escape attempt” or if the riot was instigated “to cover up some other situation.”

He did not mention whether any of the prisoners actually escaped. An INPEC spokesman previously told AFP that the death toll “may change.”

A Caracol Radio report said more than 40 people were injured. There were 180 prisoners in the prison section that was damaged by the fire.

Castellanos praised the efforts of the prison guards, some of whom were injured, to put out the fire and help the prisoners to safety.

He said that without their intervention, “the result would have been worse.” Outgoing President Ivan Duque tweeted expressing solidarity with the families of the victims.

“We deplore the events that took place in Tulua Prison, Valle del Cauca,” Duque said.

“I gave instructions to clarify this terrible situation. I stand in solidarity with the families of the victims.”

Lethal prison riots are not uncommon in Latin America. In Colombia’s neighbor Ecuador, nearly 400 prisoners have been killed in six riots since early 2021.

Colombia’s prison system has a capacity of 97,000 inmates, but is overcrowded by about 16,000, according to INPEC.