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Former guerrilla, young conservative vie to lead Colombia

June 17, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians will choose between a leftist former guerrilla and a young conservative lawmaker Sunday in a presidential election to decide who will lead the nation as it implements a still-fragile peace accord.

One-time militant and former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro and frontrunner Ivan Duque harbor contrasting views on the historic accord ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict and could significantly shape how Colombia proceeds with putting key aspects of it into motion.

Petro is vowing to uphold the 310-page accord while Duque wants to make changes like requiring ex-combatants to serve time before entering politics if they are guilty of crimes against humanity. Under the final agreement, rebels who fully confess and offer reparations to victims are unlikely to be sent behind bars.

“Undoubtedly, for the peace process, this is an important test,” said Patricia Munoz, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogota. The first presidential vote since the signing of the 2016 accord has polarized voters, pitting even close family members against one another. Duque won a first-round vote held in June, topping Petro by 14 percentage points but falling short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Recent polls indicate Duque still holds a decisive advantage but suggest the distance between the candidates is narrowing.

Duque is the protege of powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, one of the most admired and abhorred leaders in Colombia’s recent history. On the cusp of turning 42, Duque would become the youngest president in Colombia in more than a century. Critics are wary that the father-of-three’s limited experience in politics could leave him dependent on Uribe, who is the leader of his party’s bloc in the Senate.

Though millions of Colombians praise Uribe, some giving him an even cult-like status, others contend his advances as president came at the price of grave human rights abuses. While he succeeded in boosting Colombia’s economy and weakening illegal armed groups, he presided over the government at a time when military officers killed thousands of civilians who were then dressed up as rebels to inflate body counts in exchange for vacations and bonus pay.

In a sign of how tense relations between both camps of voters remain, even acts of nature have turned into fodder for political jousting. A week before the vote, a swarm of killer bees attacked supporters who showed up to see Uribe speak at a Duque rally in a small town in northern Colombia. Supporters of Duque accused Petro backers of launching the bees in an act of “biological terrorism.”

“Now African bees as Petristas,” Petro groaned later on Twitter, using the play on his last name used to describe his supporters. “Is it because they are worker bees?” Officials later said Uribe’s helicopter had likely stirred the bees into a frenzy.

Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group that signed a peace accord with the government in 1990, is promising to overhaul Colombia’s economic model. He wants to free Colombia from dependency on fossil fuel exports and raise agricultural production by increasing taxes on unused lands and giving them to peasants if the owners sell them to the state. His early fondness for the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez and a now-ditched campaign pledge to create a constitutional assembly have sparked fears among some that he’ll make Colombia “another Venezuela.”

Analysts say Petro’s candidacy is an important development in a country where more than five decades of conflict against rebels created a stigma around any candidate who appeared to sympathize with leftist causes. If he were to win, he’d likely face an uphill battle in implementing any of his campaign proposals. His allies represent a minority in congress and would struggle to pass any laws.

Duque’s own proposed changes to the peace accord may also encounter considerable resistance. Though he could implement reforms by decree, he would more likely choose to go through congress. Even though his allies represent a majority, some could push back against any changes that would put the accord on shaky ground. Observers suspect Duque himself might modify his positions if elected.

In the final weeks before the vote Duque has repeatedly said that he does not want to “shred the accord to pieces” and has tweaked several of his positions. “The entire panorama today indicates the peace process is not reversible,” Munoz said. “We have a society that does not want the FARC to return to armed conflict.”

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Ex-rebel looks to defy odds in Colombia presidential race

June 17, 2018

ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia (AP) — Gustavo Petro began his long ascent to the cusp of Colombia’s presidency in this self-built barrio named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. In 1983, equipped with little more than a shovel and a surplus of revolutionary ideals, the then-clandestine militant led some 400 squatter families in a months-long battle with local authorities to secure a plot of land to build their ramshackle homes here in Zipaquira, a city north of Bogota. Their rallying cry was: “A roof and a dignified life.”

Thirty five years later, the founders of the “Bolivar 83” barrio still living in the slum celebrate Petro’s rise as their own. The leftist candidate will face off against conservative Ivan Duque on Sunday in Colombia’s presidential runoff election.

“He taught us to call each other comrades, not neighbors,” remembers Ana Miriam Chitiva, pointing to photos hung on her home’s wall of the barrio’s early days, when the bespectacled, introverted Petro would help her lug concrete pipes and carve out dirt roads from the rocky, forested hillside.

The same crusading spirit has accompanied Petro throughout his four-decade political ascent. He’s gone from fearless lawmaker who tormented Colombia’s political class, to the renegade mayor of Bogota who took on powerful private interests and now a surprise, surging finalist in the country’s first presidential election since the signing of a historic peace accord.

The two-man race between Petro and Duque has tightened in the final stretch, with one poll indicating Petro had climbed to within 6 points of his conservative rival. In the first round of voting three weeks ago, Duque topped Petro by more than 14 points.

Whoever is elected will lead Colombia at a crucial juncture. The country is in the early stages of implementing an accord with leftist rebels to end Latin America’s longest running conflict. But cocaine production has soared in areas vacated by the rebels, threatening to undo security gains and testing traditionally close relations with the U.S.

Petro has vowed to fulfill the 310-page accord’s lofty aspirations to tackle poverty and unequal land distribution. Duque meanwhile wants to roll back some of the accord’s benefits for top commanders until they confess their war crimes and compensate victims.

For Petro to even be within striking distance of Duque is a major feat — never before in Colombia’s history has a leftist been so close to the apex of power. To get this far he’s had to soften his sometimes radical rhetoric, even going so far as to hold up mock stone tablets inscribed with 12 “commandments” committing him to stay clear of expropriating private property and earlier calls to rewrite the constitution.

He’s also had to overcome comparisons with the late socialist revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez that the Colombian right-wing has labelled “Castro-Chavismo,” a smear bandied about so much during the campaign that Petro’s 7-year-old daughter has come up with a left-stepping dance to parody the accusations.

Business elites have thrown their support squarely behind Duque, the hand-picked candidate of powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, fearful that Petro’s efforts to present himself as a moderate are a ruse.

Even some fellow leftists worry about a messianic streak. Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former peace negotiator for Petro’s 19th of April Movement, or M-19, said his former comrade always stood out for his sharp intellect and shrewd political instincts — as well as a self-defeating tendency to shun others’ opinions. But with his fledgling political movement occupying just four of 107 seats in the senate and an even smaller number in the lower house, he’ll need to build bridges if elected president.

“The truth is he’s always been a little selfish,” said Wolff, who is among a group of high-profile leftists that belatedly endorsed Petro in the runoff after backing another, less polarizing candidate in the first round. He said the support was not a blank check, however. “If you want to get things done as president you can’t act alone.”

Petro, 58, was born on the same day — April 19 — that would give rise to the guerrilla movement that he joined as a muckraking teenage journalist in Zipaquira. His nom de guerre was Aureliano, for a protagonist from “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the beloved work by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But in “Bolivar 83,” most of whose residents didn’t know of his double life at first, he was called “Flaco” — Spanish for skinny — or “Little Gustavo.”

After the housing fight was won, Petro was hunted down. While on the run, he’d jump between the homes of Chitiva and a sisterhood of single moms in “Bolivar 83” who now proudly call themselves “Petro’s girlfriends.” Once they even disguised him in high heels, lipstick and tight-fitting dress so he could slip past an army barricade.

Eventually his luck ran out and in a 1985 raid by the army he was discovered hiding in a hole dug next to one of the homes he helped build. He was taken to an army base in Bogota and beaten, and eventually spent two years in jail on weapons charges.

“Those who seek to brand Gustavo a guerrilla and a killer don’t realize he didn’t carry a weapon in his hands,” said Gonzalo Suarez, a fellow M-19 militant. “His biggest and most powerful weapon was, and still is, his deft mind, which is always focused on helping the poorest and worst off people in Colombia,” said Suarez.

Petro rose to national prominence in 2006 leading a crusade to expose the alliance between conservative allies of then-President Uribe and right-wing paramilitary groups. In hours-long televised speeches from the senate floor that mesmerized much of Colombia, he revealed evidence accusing Uribe of providing political cover for the formation of the militias as a governor in the 1990s and the personal involvement of his brother in murder and forced disappearances. Being so outspoken in a country where landholding elites have traditionally governed with impunity engendered numerous death threats.

But his allegations spurred the arrest and watershed conviction of dozens of politicians and members of congress for criminal ties to the paramilitaries. A decade later Santiago Uribe is now on trial for leading a death squad known as the 12 Apostles.

During his rise, U.S. officials viewed Petro as a radical “populist” in the mold of Chavez, according to a 2006 secret U.S. Embassy cable written by then deputy chief of mission Milton Drucker and published by pro-transparency group Wikileaks. But two years later, Ambassador William Brownfield in another cable described him as “pragmatic.”

But some fellow leftists blame him for unilaterally cutting deals with President Juan Manuel Santos following his election in 2010. The same go-it-alone streak was on display as mayor of Bogota, where he earned numerous enemies by banning bull fights, cutting bus fares and transferring control of private garbage collection to a city agency. For the latter he was ousted in 2014 by the Inspector General and banned from holding public office for 15 years. But the punishment was overturned and he was reinstated a month later by a judge acting in accordance with findings by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“There’s no doubt he’s got a strong character,” said Maria Mercedes Maldonado, the candidate’s top policy adviser. “But that’s what you need if you want to risk making meaningful transformations.”

Chile to Become First Country in the Americas to Ban Plastic Bags

May. 31, 2018

Chile is set to become the first country in the Americas to ban plastic bags to help protect the environment and especially the ocean.

Congress unanimously approved the measure on Wednesday. The bill was initially designed to outlaw plastic bags in Patagonia, but was later extended nationwide.

President Sebastian Piñera celebrated the news.

“We have taken a fundamental step to take better care of Chile and the planet. Today we are more prepared to leave a better planet to our children, grandchildren and the generations to come,” he tweeted Wednesday.

Erik Solheim, the head of the United Nations Environment Program, also offered congratulations to the South American country. He called the move a “bold step” ahead of World Environment Day this June 5, which has the theme “Beat Plastic Pollution.”

The law will apply to all major retailers within a year, while smaller businesses have two years to comply, The Santiago Times reported. Before entering into force, all retailers are allowed to provide a maximum of only two plastic bags to consumers for their purchases.

Climate Action reported that municipalities will be in charge of implementing the new law, which can carry a fine of up to $230,000 for offenders.

The bag ban is not as extreme as it may sound. The Environment Ministry’s website, chaobolsasplasticas.cl, shows that Congress members have worked on this initiative for about a decade. The vast majority (about 95 percent) of surveyed Chileans across all age groups approved of the plastic bag ban. There are also 78 communes in the country that already have measures regulating the usage of plastic bags.

In October, former president Michelle Bachelet signed a bill that prohibits the sale of single-use plastic bags in coastal villages and towns.

“We will … become the first country in the Americas to implement a law of this type and we call on other countries to assume this responsibility,” Bachelet said of the initiative at the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

According to the Association of Plastic Manufacturers (Asiplas), Chile uses more than 3.4 billon plastic bags annually, or roughly 200 bags per person per year. About 97 percent of those plastic bags end up in landfills or in oceans, where they take centuries to degrade.

Worldwide, an estimated eight million tons of plastic trash gets dumped into our oceans each year, literally choking marine life, harming ocean ecosystems and threatening the larger food chain.

This is a landmark piece of legislation for both South and North America. The Santiago Times noted that a number of states and municipalities in the U.S. and Canada have similar bans but none on the national level yet. But Costa Rica announced in August that it wants to be the first country in the world to ban all single-use plastics by 2021.

Elsewhere around the globe, Rwanda and Kenya have enforced complete bans on plastic bags. In 2002, Bangladesh became the world’s first country to ban the items.

Source: EcoWatch.

Link: https://www.ecowatch.com/chile-plastic-ban-2573881713.html.

Latin America Begins to Discover Electric Mobility

By Daniel Gutman

BUENOS AIRES, May 31 2018 (IPS) – With 80 percent of the population living in urban areas and a vehicle fleet that is growing at the fastest rate in the world, Latin America has the conditions to begin the transition to electric mobility – but public policies are not, at least for now, up to the task.

That is the assessment of UN Environment, according to a conference that two of its officials gave on May 29 in Argentina’s lower house of Congress, in Buenos Aires.

The shift towards electric mobility, however, will come inexorably in a few years, and in Latin America it will begin with public passenger transport, said the United Nations agency’s regional climate change coordinator, Gustavo Máñez, who used two photographs of New York’s Fifth Avenue to illustrate his prediction.

The first photo, from 1900, showed horse-drawn carriages. The second was taken only 13 years later and only cars were visible.

“As at other times in history, this time the transition will happen very quickly. I am seeing all over the world that car manufacturers are looking to join this wave of electric mobility because they know that, if not, they are going to be left out of the market,” said Máñez.

Projections indicate that Latin America could, over the next 25 years, see its car fleet triple, to more than 200 million vehicles by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

This growth, if the transition to sustainable mobility does not pick up speed, will seriously jeopardize compliance with the intended nationally determined contributions adopted under the global Paris Agreement on climate change, according to Máñez.

The reason is that the transport sector is responsible for nearly 20 percent of the region’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In this regard, the official praised the new president of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, who called for the elimination of fossil fuel use and for the decarbonisation of the economy. Máñez also highlighted that “Chile, Colombia and Mexico are working to tax transport for its carbon emissions.

“This is an example of public policies aimed at generating demand for electric vehicles,” said Máñez, while another positive case is that of Uruguay, one of the countries in the region that has made the most progress in electric mobility, stimulating it with tax benefits.

“But the region still needs to do a great deal of work developing incentives for electric mobility and removing subsidies for fossil fuels,” he added.

In this respect, he asked Latin America to look to the example of Scandinavian countries, where electric vehicles already play an important role, thanks to the fact that their drivers enjoy parking privileges or use the lanes for public transport, in addition to other sustained measures.

There are very disparate realities in the region.

Thus, while electric vehicles have been sold in Brazil for years, the country hosting the conference is lagging far behind and only began selling one model this year.

In fact, the meeting was led by Argentine lawmaker Juan Carlos Villalonga, of the governing alliance Cambiemos and author of a bill that promotes the installation of electric vehicle charging stations, which is currently not on the legislative agenda.

“The first objective is to generate a debate in society about sustainable mobility,” said Villalonga, who acknowledged that Argentina is lagging behind other countries in the region in the transition to clean energy.

Argentina only started a couple of years ago developing non-conventional renewable energies, which in the country’s electricity generation mix are still negligible.

As for electric mobility, the government of the city of Buenos Aires hopes to put eight experimental buses into operation by the end of the year, as a pilot plan, in a fleet of 13,000 buses.

Combating climate change is not the only reason why electric mobility should be encouraged.

“Health is another powerful reason, because internal combustion engines generate a lot of air pollution. In Argentina alone, almost 15,000 people die prematurely each year due to poor air quality,” said José Dallo, head of the UN Environment’s Office for the Southern Cone, based in Montevideo.

“There is also the issue of energy security, as electricity prices are more stable than the price of oil,” he added.

In 2016, UN Environment presented an 84-page report entitled “Electric Mobility. Opportunities for Latin America,” which noted the change would mean a reduction of 1.4 gigatons in carbon dioxide emissions, responsible for 80 percent of GHG emissions, and savings of 85 billion dollars in fuels until 2050.

The report acknowledges that among the region’s obstacles are fossil fuel subsidies “and a lower electricity supply than in developed countries, where the boom in electric mobility has been concentrated so far.”

It also notes that Latin America is the region with the highest use of buses per person in the world, and that public transport “has a strategic potential to spearhead electric mobility.”

Along these lines, the experience of Chile through the Consortium Electric Mobility, a mixed initiative with the participation of the Ministry of Transport and scientific institutions from Chile and Finland, was also shared during the conference in Buenos Aires.

Engineer Gianni López, former director of the government’s National Environment Commission and a member of the Mario Molina Research and Development Center, said that “in Chile the decision has already been taken to move public transport towards electric mobility.”

He explained that there will be 120 electric buses operating next year in Santiago and that the goal is 1,500 by 2025 – more than 25 percent of a total fleet of nearly 7,000 public transportation units.

“There are many aspects that make it easier to start with public buses than private cars,” Lopez said.

“On the one hand, buses run many hours a day so the return on investment is much faster; on the other hand, since they have fixed routes, it is easier to install recharging systems; and autonomy is not a problem because you know exactly how far they are going to travel each day,” he said.

One example of this is Uruguay, where electric taxis have been operating since 2014, and since 2016 a private mass transit company has a regular service with electric buses. In addition, a 400-km “green route,” with refueling stations every 60 km, was inaugurated last December.

As for the cost of electric vehicles, Máñez assured that China, which leads the production and sale of electric vehicles, is now close to reaching cost parity with conventional vehicles.

In this sense, the official also spoke of the need for Latin America to develop a technology that is currently underdeveloped.

He highlighted the case of Argentina, which is not only a producer of conventional vehicles, but in the north of the country has world-renowned reserves of lithium, a mineral used in batteries for electric vehicles.

The question is that lithium is exported as a primary product because this South American country has not developed the technology to manufacture and assemble the batteries locally.

Source: Inter-Press Service (IPS).

Link: http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/05/latin-america-begins-discover-electric-mobility/.

Conservative, leftist head to contentious runoff in Colombia

May 28, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The conservative protege of a powerful former president and a leftist former guerrilla who has galvanized voters with an anti-establishment message are headed for what promises to be a polarizing presidential runoff after gaining the most votes in Sunday’s election.

With almost all quick-count results in, former senator Ivan Duque was leading with 39 percent of the ballots cast, short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a June runoff. One-time rebel and ex-Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro trailed in second place with 25 percent, edging out former Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo, who garnered nearly 24 percent.

Duque and Petro represent opposite ends of Colombia’s political spectrum and have presented dramatically different visions for the future of the Andean nation as it moves forward with a historic peace process with leftist rebels.

Duque is the handpicked candidate of Alvaro Uribe, the ex-president and chief critic of the nation’s 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He is promising to amend important aspects of the accord like ensuring that drug trafficking is not an amnestied crime and blocking guerrilla leaders from political office.

Petro supports the accord and has galvanized youth voters angered by deeply entrenched corruption and income inequality. He is vowing to end Colombia’s dependence on oil exports and raise taxes on vast swaths of unproductive land in hopes of boosting agricultural production. Critics have warned his rise could push Colombia dangerously toward the left and rattle markets.

“The result was a sharp blow to traditional politics,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “With a Duque/Petro runoff, Colombians will face a starker choice than in many years.”

The election has sparked fears on both the left and right, with Duque’s critics cautioning that his presidency would be tantamount to a constitutionally barred third term for Uribe. Though hugely popular among Colombians for improving security and weakening illegal armed groups, Uribe also presided over grave human rights violations by the military.

Meanwhile, Petro and his populist “Humane Colombia” platform have drawn comparisons from critics to the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who Petro once admired. He brought Chavez to Colombia in 1994 shortly after the Venezuelan paratrooper was released from jail, where he was sent for staging a military coup.

Petro describes himself as a “strong adversary” of the neighboring country’s current president, Nicolas Maduro, but his early ties to Chavez have dogged him throughout the campaign. His campaign likened the comparisons to fear-mongering tactics by a traditional political class no longer able to court votes based on their hardline stance against leftist rebels.

In a speech before hundreds of supporters Sunday night, Petro said fears that he would turn Colombia into an authoritarian state where wealth is redistributed are unfounded. He said his proposals instead amount to a “democratization” of opportunities so that more Colombians can benefit from education and join the middle class.

“The nearly 5 million votes we received today are the votes of the youth, of excluded sectors far and wide across Colombia who have decided to burst in and say, ‘We are present,'” he said. Supporters waved flags emblazoned with the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle and the logo of the disbanded M-19 rebel group that Petro belonged to in his youth.

Edilia Pinzon, 55, was among those cheering on Petro. “We are making history,” said Pinzon, a street merchant. “The others who have reached power haven’t fulfilled their promises, especially to those of us with few means.”

More than 19 million voters cast ballots in the election, the highest turnout in two decades. The results were especially harsh for Fajardo, who fell less than 2 points behind Petro and failed to advance to the next round. During weeks of negotiations he tried unsuccessfully to form an alliance with like-minded centrist Humberto de la Calle, whose 2 percent vote haul would’ve been enough to push Fajardo past Petro.

Fajardo conceded defeat but showed no sign of who he’ll support in a runoff where his 4.5 million supporters are likely to be decisive. Petro and Duque differ on almost every critical issue facing Colombia: Duque favors forcibly eradicating coca crops that have skyrocketed to record levels, whereas Petro favors substitution. Historically tight relations between the U.S. and Colombia would likely remain unchanged under a Duque presidency, whereas Petro has called U.S. assistance to Colombia “help that has served for nothing.”

In regards to the peace deal, Duque has said he’ll introduce a constitutional reform mandating that drug trafficking cannot be an amnestied crime. Under the accord, guerrillas involved in drug trafficking and violent crimes during the conflict who fully confess can avoid jail time. Many Colombians consider those terms far too generous.

The FARC long funded itself by leveling a “war tax” on cocaine moving through territory it dominated, and 50 members of its leadership structure were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world’s largest drug cartel.

In April, Colombian authorities arrested a former top rebel peace negotiator on a U.S. drug warrant on charges that he conspired with three others to smuggle several tons of cocaine into the U.S. with a wholesale value of $15 million.

In a victory speech to supporters little changed from his regular campaign stump, Duque stressed law and order issues that are red meat to his conservative base. He said he didn’t want to “tear up” Colombia’s peace agreement but rather make modifications that would ensure victims of the conflict achieve “peace with justice.”

“I want to be the president who unites our country and not govern with a rearview mirror,” he said. Analysts said that mostly urban voters turned off by Colombia’s polarizing politics will play kingmaker in the second round.

Political analyst Ivan Valencia, himself a former rebel, said Duque will face a steeper challenge winning over supporters of Fajardo and other centrist candidates because he’s more hostile to the peace process, while Petro from the campaign’s outset has tried to portray himself — so far with mixes success — as a moderate.

“Whichever candidate is able to move more to the center is the one who will win the election,” said Valencia. De la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator with the FARC, without specifically endorsing Petro, made an impassioned plea not to backtrack on implementation of the peace accord when a future free of armed conflict is within reach.

“The war brought us together during eight years,” he said. “And now peace is dividing us.”

Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia contributed to this report from Bogota.

Bolivia UN envoy says to Israel: ‘You kill children and women’

May 17, 2018

The Bolivian representative to the United Nations Security Council, Sacha Llorenti, said to Israel “you kill children and women” after reading out the names of the 61 Palestinian victims who were killed by the Israeli soldiers in Gaza earlier this week.

The representative said during an emergency meeting on Tuesday that Gaza has turned into a large prison adding that transferring the US Embassy to Jerusalem has inflamed emotions.

“As a member of the Security Council and in the presence of my dear brother, the ambassador to Palestine; I wish to ask for his forgiveness, and say how sorry I am to the 6 million Palestinian refugees who have lost their homes and today live in camps” he added.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180517-bolivia-un-envoy-says-to-israel-you-kill-children-and-women/.

Angry families demand facts on deadly Venezuela jail riot

March 29, 2018

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — Distraught families are clamoring for information about detained relatives following a fire that Venezuela’s chief prosecutor says killed 68 people when it swept through the cells of the state police station.

Angry relatives fought with police outside the facility Wednesday after being unable to get any information on casualties from Wednesday’s fire, which townspeople said erupted after a disturbance involving detainees. Officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and local officials would confirm only that there were fatalities.

Late Wednesday, Attorney General Tarek William Saab said on his official Twitter account that 68 people were dead and nearly all of them were prisoners. He said the dead included two women who were staying overnight at the station, but he didn’t provide any further details.

Saab said four prosecutors had been named to determine what happened at the state police headquarters in Valencia, a town in Carabobo state about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas. It was one of the worst jail disasters in Venezuela, where human rights groups complain about poor conditions in prisons and jails. A fire at a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 inmates in 1994.

With tears streaking cheeks, people waiting outside the station Wednesday said dozens of detainees had been kept in squalid conditions and they feared the worst for their loved ones. Some people buried their hands in their faces. Others had to be supported by friends and family as they collapsed in despair. Some wept quietly and clutched their hands in prayer.

“I don’t know if my son is dead or alive!” cried Aida Parra, who said she last saw her son the previous day, when she took food to him. “They haven’t told me anything.” Nearby, National Guard troops wearing flak jackets and carrying rifles slung across their backs walked in and out of the station. Fire trucks and ambulances stood outside. Unused stretchers leaned against a wall.

A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit group that monitors conditions at Venezuela’s jails and prisons, said preliminary but unconfirmed information indicated the riot began when an armed detainee shot an officer in the leg. Shortly after that a fire broke out, with flames growing quickly as the blaze spread to mattresses in the cells, it said. Rescuers apparently had to break a hole through a wall to free some of the prisoners inside.

Photos shared by the group showed prisoners being taken out on stretchers, their limbs frozen in awkward positions as skin peeled off. Carlos Nieto Palma, director of A Window to Freedom, said officials should be held accountable for failing to address the poor conditions in police station jails. The group said overcrowding has become common throughout Venezuela, with detainees being kept long past customary brief holding periods before being let go or sent to larger jails to await trial.

“It’s grave and alarming,” Nieto Palma said. “What happened today in Carabobo is a sign of that.” Opposition lawmaker Juan Miguel Matheus demanded that the pro-government leader of Carabobo state inform relatives about what happened.

“The desperation of relatives should not be played with,” he said. Clashes between prisoners and guards are not uncommon in Venezuela. Inmates are frequently able to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.

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