- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

HIGUEY, Dominican Republic — Rival gangs battling over the drug trade in an overcrowded, vermin-infested prison set their bedding ablaze and blocked the entrance to their cellblock, killing at least 133 inmates in one of Latin America’s worst jailhouse blazes.

Some died in a stampede to escape the flames after guards forced open the jammed door in the cellblock known as Vietnam, one survivor said, while others were killed by smoke inhalation.

Only 26 prisoners were rescued from the jail in Higuey, 75 miles northeast of the capital on the eastern tip of the island, said National Police Chief Manuel de Jesus Perez Sanchez. Nineteen were injured.

The disaster underscored the terrible prison conditions in the Dominican Republic, which has the most overcrowded jails in the Western Hemisphere, according to figures from the United Nations. Domingo Porfirio Rojas-Nina of the Dominican National Human Rights Commission said he has been complaining for six years that the Higuey prison “is the worst in the country. It is hell on earth. It is unfit for human beings.”

Officials gave varying figures for the prison population, with one saying the Vietnam cellblock held as many as 182. The confusion over the numbers illustrated some of the problems of the prison system.

Among the victims were four Americans from Puerto Rico convicted of cocaine trafficking. Two died and two were injured, officials said.

The violence began when one inmate shot and wounded another Sunday night and dozens of members of three gangs began fighting for control of drug and cigarette sales, said the national prison director, Gen. Ramon de la Cruz Martinez.

Guards broke up the fight, but about 12:30 a.m. yesterday, prisoners began rioting, setting fire to pillows and sheets, said police spokesman Gen. Simon Diaz.

The inmates had blocked the cellblock entrance to fight it out, said chief firefighter Nestor Vera.

“It’s an incredible, mad thing,” Mr. Vera said. “When we arrived, the door was blocked with the rubble from mattresses and wood beds the prisoners had used to seal the exit shut.” They also damaged the padlock, he said, preventing a swift rescue.

Bodies were “piled up on top of each other” at the door, he said, apparently as the men struggled to escape.

Rescuers pulled 133 bodies from the block, Chief Perez Sanchez said. Many were charred, but many died from inhaling smoke, Mr. Vera said.

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