New York —

Palmasola is the largest penitentiary in Bolivia with more than 5,000 inmates and is considered the most conflictive in the country

Police officers stand guard outside the dangerous Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Juan Carlos Torrejón / EFE

The death of two inmates in the Bolivian prison of Palmasola with possible symptoms of COVID-19 raised alarms and generated a riot this Monday in that prison located in the eastern region of Santa Cruz, which concentrates the majority of cases of the disease in Bolivia.

“We want to live”, “liberty, liberty” chanted dozens of inmates gathered tonight in one of the prison’s courtyards, the largest and most conflictive in the country.

A police contingent later went to the prison to try to stop the protests, which were still developing.

One of the inmates died last Friday and the second on Sunday, both with respiratory problems, although laboratory tests are pending to confirm or rule out that they had COVID-19.

The Santa Cruz newspaper El Dutre reported on Monday that the examination of the first deceased was positive, although for the moment no authority has officially confirmed it.

Given the possible presence of COVID-19 cases in Palmasola, the Directorate of the Penitentiary Regime announced in a statement the “immediate isolation” of those who were in contact with the two deceased.

The penitentiary center will also be disinfected and fumigated and will have the support of medical brigades from the Ministry of Health “to examine the entire population of that prison,” the note said.

Another announced measure is the streamlining of pardon procedures for the population “at high risk and vulnerability”, as well as the reinforcement of biosafety measures for police and administrative personnel of the prison regime, the statement added.

Last month, inmates at the San Pedro prison in the Andean region of Oruro rioted to demand better medical care to prevent illness and the change in the prison’s medical staff.

Palmasola is the largest penitentiary in Bolivia with more than 5,000 inmates and is considered the most conflictive in the country, with episodes of trafficking in narcotics and weapons inside and attempts to escape.

Until March 2020, in Bolivia there were 18,108 people deprived of liberty, of which 16,905 are men and 1,203 women, according to data from the Penitentiary Regime released a few days ago by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Of the total number of inmates, 6,423 have been sentenced and 11,685 are pre-trially detained, according to the same source.

The overcrowding of Bolivian prisons as a result of the delay in the judicial processes has caused serious problems in recent years, including several episodes of brawls with dozens of deaths, in addition to fights for the control of penitentiary centers between different criminal gangs.

Bolivia, which registers 118 deaths and 2,556 confirmed cases of COVID-19, has been in quarantine since last March, with measures such as the closure of borders and airspace, or the prohibition of massive events.