“One of the detainees set fire to his mattress” following a fight and the flames spread, explained in the middle of the day the Minister of Justice Wilson Ruiz, announcing an updated assessment of the victims.
Among the injured, six are in an intensive care unit at the hospital, he said.
Earlier in the morning, the authorities had mentioned an attempted escape from this medium security prison in the department of Valle del Cauca, whose capital is Cali.
According to the first statements to local radio stations by General Tito Castellanos, the director of the Colombian penitentiary administration (Inpec), the prisoners died in the fire which they themselves caused around 2 a.m. local time (0700 GMT) in order to to avoid the intervention of the guards in order to attempt to escape.
“When they set fire to the mattresses, they did not measure the consequences of what could happen,” he said, giving an initial assessment of 49 dead and 30 injured.
At midday, the multi-storey building was heavily guarded by police and military.
At noon, the bodies had still not been evacuated from the prison. Forensic experts are working to identify the bodies.
A police officer gave a first list with the names of the survivors to the relatives who waited nervous and anxious in front of the prison waiting for news.
Lorena, the companion of a prisoner who did not wish to disclose her surname, said she was able to speak to him in the early hours of the morning. According to this testimony to the daily El Tiempo, the detainee complained of “gas shots”. Lorena then questioned the version of the authorities, considering “illogical that locked in a building, they set fire to the mattresses knowing that they can burn”.
– “Turn on the light” –
The fire only affected pavilion number 8 of the prison, which housed 180 prisoners, out of the 1,267 in this overcrowded prison complex (17% of prisoners in addition to its capacity), according to Inpec.
The flames spread along a corridor and ignited the mattresses of other cells, according to the Minister of Justice.
Six supervisors who used fire extinguishers to control the disaster and help dozens of prisoners to escape were intoxicated by the fumes. Without their action, “the balance sheet would have been worse”, said General Castellanos.
The outgoing Colombian president, the conservative Ivan Duque, claimed to have “given instructions to advance research that will shed light on this terrible situation”. “My solidarity goes out to the families of the victims,” he said on Twitter.
Colombia’s left-wing president-elect Gustavo Petro sent his condolences to the families of the detainees who perished and called on the state to “completely rethink prison policy around (…) the dignity of the detainee”.
“The Colombian State has considered prison as a space for revenge and not for rehabilitation”, added on Twitter the one who will take office on August 7, recalling the death of 23 prisoners in March 2020 during a mutiny in a bogota jail.
Some 97,426 people are currently deprived of their liberty in Colombia, representing a total prison overcrowding of 20%, according to Inpec.