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Several protesting Venezuela prison inmates die of drug poisoning

CARACAS, Venezuela – At least 13 hunger striking inmates at an overcrowded prison in Venezuela have died after they allegedly drank a deadly cocktail of multiple drugs and grain alcohol, officials said Thursday.

The prison ministry said in a statement that the inmates demanding better living conditions stormed a pharmacy in the prison where they ingested multiple drugs, including antibiotics, antihypertensive drugs, anti-diabetic agents, anti-epileptic drugs, and alcohol.

“They assaulted the pharmacy and the workshops, proceeding to ingest a variety of medications,” the ministry said.

At least 145 more prisoners were being treated for intoxication by medical staff at the facility. The situation remained tense Thursday as prisoner rights activists cast doubt on the government’s version.

Venezuelan Prisons Watch, a non-governmental group, refused to buy the government’s version of the story and even said that the death toll at the prison in Lara state may be higher than the government’s figures.

“I don’t think anyone is so stupid to ingest drugs just as a form of protest,” Humberto Prado, coordinator of the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, told The Associated Press.

Prado, who is the director of Venezuelan Prisons Watch, said that the death toll may be as high as 25. He cited reports from inmates’ relatives and activists on the ground at hospitals and the morgue in the western city of Barquisimeto, where the prison is located.

He also called for an investigation to determine why inmates would have voluntarily taken highly toxic medicines.

The government maintained that the situation was under control and all prisoners’ rights were being respected.

Inmates at the David Viloria penitentiary center in Lara State began their hunger strike Monday to demand the dismissal of an officer of the ministry, who they believed had been appointed director of the center.

They also protested against dismal living conditions at the facility.

National Guardsmen were deployed to restore calm in the prison from where dozens of inmates were shifted to other facilities.

The prison, according to media reports, housed 3,700 inmates, four times its capacity.

Venezuela’s prison system is said to be one of the most violent in the world. In the first half of this year, 150 inmates were killed in violent incidents, according to a recent report by Venezuelan Prisons Watch.

The prison population in the country has doubled since 2008.

The country’s 32 correction facilities are the fifth most-crowded in the world, housing almost three times their intended capacity, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.