By Stefano Pozzebon, CNN
A fire inside an overcrowded Colombian prison killed 51 inmates in the early hours of Tuesday morning, authorities said, marking one of the deadliest incidents of its kind in the country’s recent history.
The fire broke out amid a chaotic scene inside the penitentiary in the western Colombian city of Tolua.
At about 2 a.m. local time, a fight broke out among prisoners, according to Colombian Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz. One inmate set a mattress ablaze during the brawl, and flames spread across the prison wing, Ruiz said at a news conference Tuesday.
“The penitentiary personnel tried to take care of it themselves, but the flames were too strong and we had to wait for the arrival of the firefighters to control the situation,” Ruiz said.
Twenty-four people were injured, including an unspecified number of guards.
The prison is a middle-security penitentiary where inmates serve either minor sentences or finish the last few months of their incarceration, Ruiz said.
Colombian prisons are notoriously overcrowded. On average, most are 20% over capacity, Ruiz said. The penitentiary where the fire broke out in Tolua, however, was 17% over capacity, making it one of the country’s least overpopulated prisons, he added.
Deadly fighting and rioting in prisons are not uncommon in Colombia and neighboring countries. In March 2020, 24 inmates died in a riot in the Picota penitentiary in Bogota as they were protesting coronavirus measures within the penitentiary system.
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CNN’s Florencia Trucco contributed to this report