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Prison riot death toll rises to 19

The death toll from a riot at a prison near Caracas has risen to 19, Venezuela's justice minister said.

The violence broke out on Sunday at El Rodeo I prison east of Caracas. Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami initially said that at least three prisoners had been killed and 22 injured.

As he announced the higher death toll, Mr El Aissami did not say how many other inmates were wounded.

He later announced that President Hugo Chavez's government has decided to create a new ministry dedicated exclusively to prisons. He said the change is aimed at "concentrating efforts" on the government's prison policies.

Violence is common in Venezuela's severely crowded prisons, where rival gangs often fight for control of cellblocks and sell weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt prison guards.

The riot followed visits by inmates' relatives, Mr El Aissami said. It was unclear what set off the fighting.

Anguished relatives of inmates who gathered outside the prison complained about a lack of information from authorities, and told Venezuelan media that more than 30 inmates were injured.

A total of 124 deaths were reported in Venezuela's prisons in the first three months of this year, a 22% increase over the same period last year, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a watchdog group.

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