Thirty-one people are dead, including at least one child, and over sixty were injured in a prison uprising that took place in the Chonchocorito maximum security sector of the Palmasola Penitentiary in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, yesterday. The Santa Cruz Rehabilitation Center, better known as Palmasola, currently houses 5200 inmates in seven sectors. Most of the inmates are under an "open regimen" (no cells). There are 250 inmates detained in the Chonchocorito sector.
Most of the victims were burned to death inside Block A when inmates from the adjecent Block B tossed gasoline-fueled "bombs" into the enclosed area as the result of a fight between rival inmates for control of the area.
The tragedy began just after midnight. Inmates of Block B, where the most violent inmates are housed, who had been drinking and taking drugs, planned to assault Block A before sunrise when most of their victims were sleeping. During prior hours, the Block B inmates had supplied themselves with gasoline canisters, sticks and guns. Once Block A inmates had been enclosed for the evening, they secured their rival's gates from the outside.
"They tossed gasoline bombs from the outside into Block A, which turned into an inferno. They also used gas canisters (used for cooking at the prison) as flame throwers against rival inmates who tried to escape. Some tried to defend themselves with sticks, but dozens burned alive," explained one inmate, whose story was confirmed by the dozens of photographs and videos taken later by local media. The identities of the dead have not yet been confirmed. Many of the bodies were unrecognizable.
According to National Police Commander, Alberto Aracena, police controlled the situation rapidly by shooting into the interior of the prison from their elevated guard stations. Prison guards do not effectively have control over inmates at Palmasola because they have no access to the pavilions, he said. Inmates usually organize their own "security forces".
Colonel Guido Parada, the prison governor, watched as the carnage took place. "The inmates were completely burned to death. Everything was destroyed. Apparently, two gas canisters exploded, igniting the fire inside the structure. Part of the roof was blown off. Before noon the next day the fire had been controlled and now the forensic experts must enter, search through what remains, and attempt to identify and count the bodies," he said, adding that Police used firearms upon entering the sector and attempted to disperse the inmates by firing into the air. He was unable to explain why a child of just over one year of age, had been burned to death alongside his or her father, saying that children are not allowed in this section of the prison.
The women's sector of the prison has a small sporting pavilion which was converted into an impromptu triage area for the wounded. Paramedics arrived from the Red Cross, the Ministry of Health, the Ucebol clinic, and other medical centers to assist prison medical personnel. Members of the Ombudsman's Office and the Offices for Human Rights and Children's rights, as well as the inmates' family members were not allowed to enter. "There are injured and burned inmates inside crying for help. It can't be that they won't let us in to see our family members. We can help, we need with burn medication and other medications" said one woman.
Police sprayed several women with pepper spray because they would not allow police vehicles to enter the prison. Family members were indignant over the lack of information and demanded a list of the dead and injured. The police contributed to misinformation, stating initially that only 10 were dead. Celso Parada, of the Ombudsman's Office, could not hold back his tears as he stated, "What happened this morning was a real tragedy. There are at least 29 dead, including a baby".
Local hospitals, both public and private, are filled to capacity and under heavy police custody due to the violent nature of these inmates, whom police fear might attempt to escape. Public hospitals are already very poorly funded and medical personnel had previously warned that there were not enough burn units throughout the public health system in Bolivia's most populous city. Some inmates were taken to private hospitals as well, but eventually had to turn patients away when they became overcrowded. The Hospital Japones was the first hospital to receive injured inmates.
Police have suspended all family visits to the prison while investigators recover evidence. Thirty of the dead have yet to be identified and are being housed at the San Juan de Dios morgue in downtown Santa Cruz. Morgue officials stated they would attempt to provide a list of the dead by 5:00 p.m. on Saturday. One inmate, Luis Alberto Torres, succumbed to his injuries and died at 6:20 Saturday morning at the Hospital Japones. His body was badly burned and it appeared he had been hacked with a machete, stated his doctor, Abel Durán.
Palmasola was a ticking time bomb. According to Government Minister, Carlos Romero, the Bolivian penitentiary system is very deficient and there is little control over inmates. "In many cases the inmates are running the prisons," he said, confirming that the tragedy was the result of disputes for leadership and control over the space that took place between prisoners incarcerated for murder, rape, assault, and drug trafficking. He named several prisoners who are presumed to be the heads of the group of inmates who initiated the attack, adding that they extort new inmates when they arrive and were intent upon gaining control over Block A to do the same.
Date: 24 August 2013. Sources (and photos):