Police: At least 15 killed in Bolivia prison melee

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) - At least 15
people were killed, many burned to
death, in a battle among rival gangs
for control of part of an
overcrowded maximum-security
prison in Bolivia's eastern lowlands,
police said.
Bolivian police chief Alberto
Aracena said at least seven of the
50 injured were in critical condition
after Friday's melee, in which he
said propane gas canisters
exploded, triggering a fire at the
Palmasola prison outside the
regional capital of Santa Cruz.
Several inmates told reporters that
gas canisters were used like
flamethrowers in the early morning
attack. It was not immediately clear
if those canisters subsequently
Arancena said many of the bodies
were burned. In addition to fallen
inmates, Arancena said the dead
included a child, whose age and
gender he did not mention. The
United Nations complained to
Bolivia's government two months
ago about its policy of allowing
children through age 6 to live with
parents in prisons.
"There was a fight for control in two
cellblocks in the prison," Aracena
told reporters. He said prisoners
from Cellblock B exploded two
propane tanks in Cellblock A. One
injured inmate later told a TV
journalist from his hospital bed
that attackers had used a propane
tank like a flamethrower.
Witnesses also reported hearing
shots afterward.
Some inmates jumped off a second-
story roof to save themselves. TV
images showed naked inmates
stretched out on the floor of a
prison block, many complaining of
burns, after hundreds of police
regained control.
As in many Latin American prisons,
inmates largely control the inside of
Palmasola, which teems with some
3,500 inmates, more than four in
five still awaiting trial.
Prosecutors counted the victims as
ambulances evacuated the
wounded, many with second- and
third-degree burns.
Outside the prison, relatives of
inmates wept and shouted demands
for a list of victims. Some angrily
complained to journalists that
police did nothing to try to save the
lives of burn victims.
At midday, children who had been
living inside the prison with their
parents were evacuated.
President Evo Morales expressed
"consternation" over the deaths in
a statement carried by the state
news agency ABI, and said he was
ordering a thorough investigation.
An inmate who spoke by phone to a
local TV station and did not give
his name said the melee resulted
from a power struggle between rival
prison gang bosses over the refusal
of one to accept a cousin of the
other. The gang bosses typically
charge "fees" from new arrivals.
Authorities said it took more than
four hours to regain control of the
prison, and Aracena said about 256
prisoners were evacuated.
Weapons and drugs are typically
available and businesses operate
under the protection of gang
leaders. Almost anything can be
obtained in a prison like Palmasola
for a fee, former inmates say,
including cell phones and larger
living spaces.