NOEL KING, HOST:
It seems like barely a day goes by without a new crisis in Venezuela. The economy has collapsed. The country is desperately short of food and medicine. And now we have news of another tragedy - a fire in a police station that officials say killed 68 people. Many details around the fire have not been officially confirmed. NPR's Philip Reeves, though, has been monitoring this story from Rio de Janeiro. Phil, good morning.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So what do we know right now about this fire?
REEVES: Well, it happened in the prison cells of a big police station in Valencia. That's a city about a hundred miles west of the capital, Caracas. Reports say that disturbances broke out inside the cells. There's a report that a police officer got shot in the leg by one of the prisoners. Prisoners set fire to mattresses. The fire got out of control and became so severe that rescuers had to punch a hole in the wall to try to get people out. The chief prosecutor of Venezuela is saying on Twitter that nearly all of the 68 who died were prisoners, but the victims also include two women who were visiting.
KING: And, as we said, details around this are far from confirmed. All the details are far from confirmed, but we were reading this morning that there were, after the fire, there were clashes outside of the prison?
REEVES: Yes. As news of this disaster spread around the local community, relatives of the inmates started to show up outside the building, you know, desperate for information. No one was telling them anything. They got angry. Clashes broke out with the security forces there, who used tear gas reportedly to try to bring the situation under control.
KING: What are the conditions in Venezuela's prisons like, and do you think they contributed to a tragedy like this?
REEVES: Almost certainly they will have. Human rights groups have, for a long time, been saying that the penal system in Venezuela is dysfunctional, it's overcrowded, it's awash with disease and malnutrition, not to mention drugs and guns. And this tragedy is likely to be cited as another example of how the system is in a terrible condition.
KING: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro is facing, as we said, many, many, many problems - economic problems, shortages of food and medicine. What will an event like this mean for him? Will it mean anything, or will just be another blip, considering how much else is going on?
REEVES: It increases the pressure on Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party. It's a reminder of how desperate the situation is, so desperate that billions of people have left the country. As you mentioned, there's a dire shortage of food, medicines and basics. He's got an election in May. The mainstream opposition is almost in all cases boycotting this, but there is one opposition candidate who's standing against him. However, most people on the opposition side say that this is a fraudulent process, and that's a view that is also supported by many within the international community.
KING: All right. NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio. Thanks, Phil.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.