LA PAZ, Bolivia – A battle among rival gangs in a prison in Bolivia's eastern lowlands Friday left at least 30 people dead, many burned to death, as witnesses said inmates used propane gas tanks as flame-throwers.
At least 60 people were injured in the carnage in the maximum-security Palmasola prison outside the regional capital of Santa Cruz, according to the national ombudsman's office and the highly respected local chapter of Bolivia's independent Permanent Assembly for Human Rights. The groups also provided the death toll.
Even long after bodies had been catalogued in hospital morgues, neither the police nor the Interior Ministry had updated the death toll of 15 that police chief Alberto Aracena provided shortly after the early morning violence.
Arancena said among the dead was 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.
Aracena said two propane gas canisters had exploded, triggering a fire at the prison. But the ombudsman's office, the rights group and injured inmates who spoke to reporters from hospital beds said gas canisters were used like flamethrowers. It was unclear if those canisters exploded.
People outside the prison reported hearing shots fired.
The local representative of the Permanent Assembly, Maria Inez Galvez, told The Associated Press that she and other members of her group who were allowed to enter the prison saw "bodies of burned men, some of the wounded with burned hands, others with burned faces."
"We didn't know how to begin to help," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. She said that when she arrived at 8 a.m. the worst of the wounded had been evacuated. Hospital officials said many had second- and third-degree burns.
"We also saw a man who had burns and got up and grabbed a police officer's weapon in order to get taken to the hospital," said Galvez.
She said there were not enough police available to escort wounded prisoners to hospitals to get medical attention.
Galvez said she was told the fight was over the refusal of the gang in Cellbock B to pay extortion fees to its rivals in Cellblock A, who attacked around dawn while most inmates were sleeping. Aracena had said prisoners from Cellblock B used two propane tanks against the rival cell block.
Some inmates jumped off a second-story roof to save themselves. TV images showed naked inmates stretched out on the floor of a prison block, many complaining of burns, after police regained control of the prison.
As in many Latin American prisons, inmates largely control the inside of Palmasola, which teems with some 3,500 inmates, more than four in five still awaiting trial.
Outside the prison, relatives of inmates wept and shouted demands for a list of victims. Some angrily complained to journalists that police did nothing to try to save the lives of burn victims.
At midday, children who had been living inside the prison with their parents were evacuated.
President Evo Morales expressed "consternation" over the deaths in a statement carried by the state news agency ABI, and said he was ordering a thorough investigation.
Authorities said it took more than four hours to regain control of the prison, and Aracena said about 256 prisoners were evacuated.
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 cellphones and larger living spaces.
Associated Press writers Paola Flores in La Paz and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.