CARACAS (Reuters) - A clash between gangs killed at least 16 inmates at a Venezuelan prison in the latest bloodshed to afflict the notoriously over-crowded penal system, the government said on Tuesday.
The government says weapons smuggling by corrupt guards has allowed heavily armed inmates effectively to control some facilities. Venezuela's prisons hold three times as many inmates as they were designed for, and gun battles are common.
But the death toll from the violence which broke out on Monday between two groups of detainees at the Sabaneta prison, in the western city of Maracaibo, was higher than usual.
"It's deplorable that there are still some people who don't even have the smallest respect for life," Prisons Minister Iris Varela told reporters.
"They were planning an internal war (in Sabaneta) ... and now they're acting like nothing happened," she said, referring to "mafias" running lucrative illicit business in the prison.
In Venezuela's worst prison incident in recent years, riots killed at least 58 people in January at the Uribana prison near Barquisimeto city in the southwest of the country.
The nation's 34 mostly run-down prisons were designed for about a third of the 50,000 inmates they now hold, according to local prison advocacy groups. Many of the prisoners are armed, and hundreds are killed each year in riots and shootouts.
A month-long siege took place in 2011 at El Rodeo prison, just outside the capital Caracas, when 22 inmates died before some 5,000 soldiers were able to restore order.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis and Diego Ore; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)