Bolivia - At least 15 people were killed, many burned to death, in a battle among inmates for control of part of an overcrowded maximum-security prison in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands on Friday, the national police chief said.
Chief Alberto Aracena said at least seven of the 50 others injured were in critical condition after the melee began when propane gas canisters exploded, triggering a fire at the Palmasola prison outside the regional capital of Santa Cruz.
Arancena said many of the bodies were burned and he expected the death toll to rise. In addition to the fallen inmates, Arancena said the dead included a child, whose age and gender he did not mention.
The United Nations complained to Bolivia’s government two months ago about its policy of allowing children through age 6 to live with parents in prisons.
“There was a fight for control in the prison in two cellblocks,” Aracena told reporters.
He said prisoners from Cellblock B exploded two propane tanks in Cellblock A around dawn, when many inmates were sleeping.
Radio Erbol reported from the scene that shots were heard after the explosions.
Some inmates jumped off a roof to save themselves. TV images showed naked inmates stretched out on the floor of a prison block, many complaining of burns, after hundreds of police regained control.
Prosecutors counted the victims as ambulances evacuated the wounded, many with second- and third-degree burns. Some relatives of prisoners crowded around the ambulances, peering inside to see if their loved one was aboard.
An inmate who spoke by phone to a local TV station and did not give his name said the melee resulted from a power struggle between rival prison gang bosses over the refusal of one to accept a cousin of the other.
The gang bosses typically charge “fees” from new arrivals.
Authorities said it took more than four hours to regain control of the prison. At midday, smoke continued to rise from the prison although officials said the fire was controlled with the help of a morning drizzle.
Aracena said about 256 prisoners were evacuated.
As in many Latin American prisons, inmates largely control the inside of Palmasola, which teems with some 3,500 inmates, most awaiting trial.
Weapons and drugs are typically available and businesses operate under the protection of gang leaders.
Almost anything can be obtained in a prison like Palmasola for a fee, former inmates say, including cell phones and larger living spaces.
The Palmasola prison is where New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher was held for 11 months without a trial, Ostricher has since been released on bail to house arrest in Bolivia.