Some inmates missing after Venezuela prison clash

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — One week after gunfire tore through Uribana prison in one of Venezuela's deadliest-ever prison clashes, the families of some inmates say they haven't been able to find their relatives.

They say they've looked at the morgue, in the hospital and on lists of inmates transferred to other prisons after the violence on Jan. 25. The government says 58 people were killed in the clash between armed inmates and security forces, but one Venezuelan prison watchdog group says that according to its tally at least 63 died.

The government as of Friday had yet to provide an explanation to some relatives who haven't located inmates and have been waiting for news every day outside the prison on the outskirts of the western city of Barquisimeto.

Pilar Pineda said she has been trying to find her brother, 31-year-old Daniel Enrique Pineda, who had been in the prison for two years, awaiting a sentence in a robbery case, when the violence erupted.

A maid, Pineda has been taking a three-hour bus trip every day from the town where she lives, and has been waiting in the sun with relatives of other inmates outside the prison, going long hours without eating.

"You never lose faith, and that's what we hope, that with the grace of God we will find my brother," Pineda told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Pineda said that a man with the same last name as her brother but a different first name appeared on a list of inmates transferred to another prison in Maracaibo, and she hopes it might be him.

She guesses officials might have taken down his name incorrectly in the rush while hundreds of inmates were being moved out of the prison after the violence. More than 2,000 inmates were bused to other prisons across the country.

Nelly Tambo said she looked for her 26-year-old son, Ildemaro Jose Tambo, in the morgue and in the hospital, and on lists of transferred prisoners, and that he finally called her on Thursday from another prison where he was taken.

Recalling his voice saying "Mama," Tambo said: "I felt very happy, very excited because I hadn't slept, I hadn't eaten thinking about him."

Activist Humberto Prado, who leads the watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, said his organization has been gathering information about various families who haven't located their relatives after the violence at Uribana prison. He said that the group will give authorities information about the inmates who remain unaccounted for, and that such cases show a lack of organization in the transfers of prisoners to other penitentiaries.

An official of the Penitentiary Service Ministry did not return repeated calls from the AP seeking comment about the situation.

A tally by Prado's group listed 61 inmates killed, along with one National Guard soldier and a Protestant pastor who was visiting the prison.

Human rights groups, government opponents and Roman Catholic Church leaders have called for a thorough investigation into the violence. Some activists said authorities apparently used excessive force.

Human Rights Watch said Venezuelan authorities should urgently take steps to make sure such incidents don't happen again.

"The casualty figures raise serious concerns that the use of lethal force at Uribana prison was far out of proportion with the need," Jose Miguel Vivanco, the group's Americas director, said in a statement. "While the government is justified in disarming prisoners, when faced by resistance it should always observe international principles on the use of lethal force."

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that similar investigations into violence during the past two years by Venezuelan authorities "did not lead to any public accounting of what happened or determination of responsibility."

The bloodshed at Uribana prison, which was the deadliest spasm of prison violence in Venezuela since 1994, also prompted statements of concern from U.N. human rights office and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela defended the authorities' actions and said that when National Guard troops were attempting to carry out an inspection and take control of the facility, groups of prisoners opened fire "on a large scale."

She said the government decided to send troops to search the prison after reports of clashes between inmates during the previous two days.

In most of the country's penitentiaries, National Guard troops remain outside while the authorities largely leave internal control of the facilities to groups of inmates, some of them heavily armed. In recent searches of prisons, the authorities have reported finding assault rifles, submachine guns, handguns and grenades.

Prado said there are conflicting accounts of how the violence erupted at Uribana prison. While the authorities say the security forces came under fire, some inmates say that the authorities ordered all of the inmates to gather in a softball field and that one prisoner who had been sleeping was brought out violently by guards, Prado said.

According to that account by prisoners, Prado said, inmates grabbed rocks and hurled them, and troops then fired into the air, setting off the gunfire. He said it will be up to the authorities to investigate the differing accounts.

Violence has worsened recently in Venezuela's overcrowded prisons, with 591 inmates reported killed last year in the deadliest toll yet during President Hugo Chavez's 14-year government, according to Prado's group.

In 2011, Chavez created a Cabinet-level ministry to focus on prisons and appointed Varela to lead it. The president made that decision following a deadly, weekslong armed uprising at the prisons El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II outside Caracas.

Since Varela assumed her post, 869 inmates have been killed, Prado said. He and other activists charge that the new government ministry hasn't made real progress in addressing the crisis.

Varela defended the government's efforts, saying "human rights have been respected here like never before."

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