Relatives demand answers after Venezuela jail fire kills 68

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PV International Desk : It wasn’t long after Daniel Marquez’s family showed up at the Venezuelan police station jail where he’d been locked up for nearly a year awaiting trial when black smoke began billowing from the building.

Guards ordered them to flee, forcing them and other inmate relatives to watch in horror from afar as the flames quickly grew.

One day later, Marquez’s family took his blackened remains home in a simple wooden coffin, their despair as wide as the questions surrounding the blaze Wednesday that killed 68 people in one of Venezuela’s worst jail fires.

“He didn’t deserve to die like this,” Sorangel Gutierrez, Marquez’s sister-in-law, said as relatives wept before the casket of the 28-year-old father of two. His relatives say he was jailed because he couldn’t pay a bribe to an officer who found a photo of an illegal weapon on his cell phone.

Varying versions of exactly what happened inside the police station’s crowded jail cells circulated Thursday among relatives and human rights groups amid a deafening silence from officials, who have yet to provide a full account.

Marquez’s family said they received a call from him shortly before the fire claiming that guards were pouring gasoline in the cellblock, prompting them to rush to the police station detention center.

However, other accounts from survivors and victims’ relatives indicated it was the inmates themselves who set the blaze in order to escape.

President Nicolas Maduro has not made any statement about the fire and loss of life, instead posting a video on Twitter of an encounter with U.S. actor Danny Glover and reminding Venezuelans there are hundreds of beaches and churches around the country where they can spend Holy Week celebrations.

The most substantial information authorities have released so far came in a series of three tweets from chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab, who said late Wednesday that 66 men, as well as two women who were visiting the jail, were killed.

He said four prosecutors have been assigned to determine what happened and who was responsible for the tragedy in Valencia, an industrial city in Carabobo state, 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Caracas, the capital. He pledged a “thorough investigation to immediately shed light on the painful events that have put dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning.”

As Venezuela plummets into an economic crisis worse than the Great Depression, advocates say prisoners are facing especially dire conditions, going hungry in increasingly crowded cells. Inmates also frequently obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards and heavily armed groups control cellblock fiefdoms.