Prison riots in Colombia over virus fears leave at least 23 dead

  • >> Julie Turkewitz, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-03-23 10:26:21 BdST

At least 23 inmates died in clashes with prison authorities over the weekend after what prisoners described as protests against officials for not doing enough to control the spread of coronavirus.

The protests erupted in 13 penitentiaries across Colombia. The deadly clashes were in La Modelo prison in the capital, Bogotá and officials described the riots as an effort by inmates to escape.

The country’s justice minister, Margarita Cabello, said in a video address Sunday morning that the riots were part of a “massive and criminal escape attempt” that authorities had thwarted, and that there was “no sanitation problem” in the prison. She said at least 23 people had died.

The riots are among several violent confrontations in Latin American prisons since the arrival of coronavirus in the region.

Worries are growing around the world about the risks faced by inmates and workers in prisons, where close quarters and strained medical operations can put people at a higher risk of infection. An inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn tested positive Saturday for the coronavirus, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. It is the first known case involving an inmate in the US federal prison system.

On Sunday morning, Colombia’s health ministry said the country had 231 confirmed cases of coronavirus, resulting in two deaths. There were no cases of coronavirus at La Modelo, according to the justice ministry.

Riot police is seen outside La Modelo prison after a riot started by prisoners demanding government health measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bogota, Colombia March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Leonardo Munoz

Riot police is seen outside La Modelo prison after a riot started by prisoners demanding government health measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bogota, Colombia March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Leonardo Munoz

Speaking from a cellphone inside another Bogotá prison, La Picota, Oscar Sanchez, 42, an inmate, called the clashes “a massacre that until now has taken more lives than coronavirus in Colombia.”

“We are trying to launch an SOS,” said Sanchez, adding that the prison was overcrowded, that inmates had not received enough information about how to protect themselves, and that many were worried that guards would bring the virus into the compound.

“If there is one infection, it would be a time bomb,” he said.

On Sunday morning, family members of inmates crowded together outside La Modelo, some wearing surgical masks, and demanded information about their loved ones. They listened as an official with a bullhorn called out the names of injured prisoners.

In neighbouring Venezuela, at least 10 prisoners died last week in the Retén de Cabimas prison in the state of Zulia, according to Gov. Omar Prieto. Several more inmates escaped.

In Brazil, riots at four prisons in São Paulo led to the escape of hundreds of inmates Tuesday. The riots began after state officials suspended the temporary leave permits of 34,000 prisoners in an effort to prevent widespread contagion of coronavirus behind bars.

By Wednesday, officials in São Paulo said they had detained 720 of the prisoners who escaped. It was not clear how many remained at large.

Inmates in several French prisons have also been protesting over the past few days, in this case demonstrating against the government’s confinement measures, which have severely restricted access to the outside world, mostly by suspending family visitation rights.

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