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More than 20 Colombian prisoners die in riot over coronavirus fears

Justice minister Margarita Cabello described the events at the La Modelo prison in Bogota as an attempted escape, while advocates blamed officials.

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Relatives of inmates gather outside La Modelo jail in Bogota (Ivan Valencia/AP)

Relatives of inmates gather outside La Modelo jail in Bogota (Ivan Valencia/AP)

Relatives of inmates gather outside La Modelo jail in Bogota (Ivan Valencia/AP)

A deadly riot broke out in a prison in Colombia’s capital, leaving 23 inmates dead.

Tensions rose on Sunday over the spread of Covid-19 in one of the country’s most vulnerable locations.

Justice minister Margarita Cabello described the events at the La Modelo prison in Bogota as an attempted prison escape.

But advocates for inmates argued officials had cracked down on prisoners staging a peaceful protest over conditions they feared would exacerbate infections with the virus.

Virus Outbreak Colombia Prison Riot
The relative of an inmate cries outside La Modelo jail in Bogota (Ivan Valencia/AP)

“Today is a sad and painful day for the country,” Ms Cabello said.

The conflict at La Modelo, which houses both suspects and convicts of crimes ranging from burglary to drug trafficking, began late on Saturday.

Inmates shared videos online showing people outside their cells, yelling as shots rang out in the distance.

“They have us abandoned here,” one inmate exclaimed.

“They have us like dogs.”

On Sunday, evidence of the violence was still visible.

The body of one man lay face-up on a roof, dressed in bright blue shorts, white trainers and a bloody grey sweatshirt.

This was a criminal attempt to escape that was thwartedMargarita Cabello

Family members, many wearing protective masks, gathered outside, clamouring for information.

“We’re desperate because we don’t know anything,” one woman cried.

Authorities did not provide a detailed account of how the inmates had died, saying only that seven jail workers had also been injured, two critically.

Ms Cabello said no inmates had escaped and that to date, none had been diagnosed with coronavirus either.

“This was a criminal attempt to escape that was thwarted,” she said in a video statement.

Virus Outbreak Colombia Prison Riot
Inmates point from inside La Modelo jail (Ivan Valencia/AP)

Jhon Leon, director of Judicial Solidarity, an organisation that works to improve inmate conditions, said prisoners had planned a nationwide protest on Saturday evening after complaining about the dire state of jails for two weeks without getting a reply.

He said about 5,000 people housed in the jail, some of whom are kept six to a cell while others sleep in hallways.

Prisoners want elderly inmates and those with preexisting conditions to be moved to other locations and be put in isolation, he said.

They also want more information on whether any inmates have been tested for the coronavirus.

“This was a peaceful protest,” Mr Leon said.

“The response of authorities was overhanded.”

Colombia had confirmed 231 coronavirus cases and two deaths as of Sunday.

PA