VALENCIA, Venezuela – They died together as flames raced through a crowded prison in Venezuela.
Now many of them are buried side by side.
Weeping relatives dropped caskets from many of the 68 officers who were killed in a freshly dug mass grave on Friday in one of the nation's worst prisons.
Cemetery workers said they expected to bury about half of those killed in three deep graves, each of which was separated by a layer of hastily constructed cement blocks. Simple white crosses with their handwritten names, birth dates and common death dates were placed around the grave.
"How will I forget to see my husband burned?" Asked Wilca Gonzalez, 36, whose lover was the first to land on Friday. "How can you forget that?"
The mass excavation comes two days after the terrible fire in the industrial city of Valencia, where an estimated 200 people were housed in cells destined for no more than three dozen. While burying their dead, relatives of those killed seek answers from officials who have not yet published a complete account of what has happened, how many have been injured, or have posted the names of those killed.
"The state has a lot to be silent about," said Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, an independent group campaigning for prisoners' rights.
In a statement, the Venezuelan government on Friday defended its commitment to human rights and ordered the prosecutor to investigate. Officials also blasted the United Nations Human Rights Office for comments made in Venezuela on Thursday to address concerns such as dangerously crowded cells and to ensure that the nation's prisons and prisons meet international standards.
"It makes its biased position on Venezuela publicly clear," the statement said.
Lawyers said the officials' relative silence was symptomatic of a greater unwillingness to deal with long-lasting concerns about the country's prison system. According to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, at least 32,000 people are housed in police station prisons serving as temporary holding cells for 8,000 people. Inmates are often able to use drugs and weapons with the help of corrupt guards.
Now that Venezuela is struggling with one of the worst economic contractions in modern Latin American history, it is believed that these conditions have worsened. Like much of the nation, activists say that prisoners are starving and unable to receive needed medical care.
"As the country is undergoing hyperinflation and the population is suffering from basic shortages and medicines in a mass shortage, conditions in Venezuelan law enforcement have fallen to values that can best be described as draconian," said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuelan researcher at the Washington office in Latin America.
The incident is among the worst mass casualties in Venezuelan prisons, but is not the first. A fire in a prison in the western state of Zulia killed more than 100 detainees in 1994. In 2013, 61 people died in an uprising in Barquisimeto and more than 100 were injured, mostly by gunshot wounds.
In the absence of an official narrative, the relatives were led to thwart the small details of the last moments of their loved ones from photos transmitted by cell phones and survivors.
Jeyne Lugo, whose 27-year-old son Roner was killed, said he called her just before the fire and said the police shot a pregnant woman in jail in the head. The inmates then set fire to a mattress to alert the dying woman to her help, she said. He told her that the officers began pouring gas, continued to ignite the flames and spread them.
After the fire, Lugo received a photo showing her son's right leg next to the body of a deceased pregnant woman, bloodied over her face. She recognized her son's leg because of the thick scar that wafted up his calf, the remnant of an operation he had suffered years before after an accident.
While she said the officials told the families who had died most from suffocation, she doubts this report. A survivor claims that her son survived the fire, but was shot.
She criticized what she called a premature effort by officials to close the case.
"I've never seen anything like it," she said.
Other reports indicate that the inmates may have set the fire to escape.
Carlos Nieto, the director of A Window to Freedom, an organization that oversees prison conditions, said reports from survivors and relatives indicate that the incident began when inmates attempted to capture two guards. Later, they allegedly set fire to some mattresses to force the guards to open the cells.
He said the only survivors could have escaped because firefighters breached a wall behind the cells and appealed to authorities for not doing any more to help them.
The inmates of the prison are believed to be a mixture of inmates awaiting trial or have already been convicted for a range of offenses, many of which are relatively minor in nature.
The family of Gonzalez's husband, Erickson Zapata, 23, said he had been wrongfully imprisoned with several others suspected of theft of a cellphone. They said he should not have been detained for more than ten days, but was in jail for ten months. It was kept in the main part of the facility, where 60 people were crammed inside, many slept in makeshift hammocks of sheets.
Gonzalez said when her husband last called her from prison, he asked for help.
"I can not breathe," he shouted. "I'm suffocating."
She identified his body with his crooked left ring finger and his uniquely large front teeth.
On Friday, his father, Jesus Zapata, 42, stood beside his son's coffin holding his Bible. With three other men he helped lower the coffin into the ground.
His soft sobbing turned to weeping as the workers covered the coffin with boards and prepared the grave for the next inmate to be summoned.
Associated Press authors Fabiola Sanchez of Caracas, Venezuela, and Christine Armario of Bogota, Colombia, have contributed to this report.
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