Relatives of inmates, journalists and riot police gather outside La Modelo prison in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday as smoke rises from an overnight riot. — AFP/VNA Photo
BOGOTA — Rioting that swept through a crowded prison overnight in the Colombian capital Bogota left 23 inmates dead on Sunday amid rising tensions over the spread of the coronavirus in the penitentiary system.
Justice Minister Margarita Cabello said it was a "sad and painful day" as she confirmed the death toll at the capital's La Modelo prison.
Cabello described the violence as an attempted mass breakout, part of what she said was a coordinated plan with inmates who caused disturbances in 13 jails across the country.
The minister rejected accusations by rights groups that the riots were sparked by unsanitary conditions inside a prison system that was woefully unprepared to face the coronavirus pandemic.
"There is no health problem that would have caused the escape plan and these riots," Cabello said.
"Today, there is not a single infection, and no prisoners, nor administration or custodial officials, that have the coronavirus."
The violence occurred as the capital was on a weekend lockdown to test the readiness of its seven million population to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
The epicenter of the unrest was in La Modelo, Bogota's second largest prison after La Picota, where protests also erupted on Saturday night.
According to Cabello, 83 inmates and seven guards were injured in the disturbances inside La Modelo. Around half the injured prisoners were hospitalized, and two of the guards were in "critical condition".
"There were no escapes," she added.
Dozens of family members ignored the weekend lockdown to congregate outside the prison on Sunday to demand news of their relatives.
"In this moment, we do not know who is alive and who is dead," said Yinna Gordillo, a 23-year-old who said she was awaiting news of her brother.
A pall of black smoke hung over the prison on Sunday as family members were kept at a distance by a cordon of riot police.
Bogota's mayor Claudia Lopez criticized the justice ministry and the prison authorities for delays in informing "family members and citizens about what happened."
Attorney General Fernando Carrillo has asked the government to immediately declare "a prison emergency to guarantee health conditions, enforce rights and preserve public order."
The country's Ombudsman's Office has backed the proposal, saying it would facilitate releases of prisoners aged over 60 to protect them from the coronavirus.
The Ombudsman has repeatedly criticised overcrowding inside the country's 138 prisons, which house 123,000 inmates.
The justice ministry said prisoners had run amok during a night of violence, and some would face charges of "attempted murder, personal injury, fire and damage to the property of others."
"Additionally, there were fights between the inmates themselves," the ministry said.
The head of Colombia's prison authorities, General Norberto Mujica, said his forces had taken back full control.
"Our guards prevented the escape from being carried out. We achieved that today and as a result are not looking for 5,000 prisoners that would have escaped."
Colombia's President Ivan Duque said the country, which had 231 coronavirus cases and two deaths on Sunday, would enter a 19-day quarantine from midnight on Tuesday. — AFP