Prison crisis in Venezuela becomes political football
The struggle to retake a Venezuelan prison from its heavily-armed inmates has spawned a political battle, with the government opening an investigation into the prison gang bosses’ alleged links to opposition politicians.
The armed takeover of a Venezuelan prison by its inmates is the clearest sign yet that the country's penal system is in a state of meltdown. The confrontation was sparked on Friday when the military tried to carry out a search for weapons in El Rodeo II prison, in the Caribbean coast state of Miranda. The inmates resisted, led by powerful gang leaders known as “pranes," and since then they have been battling with some 4,000 troops sent to restore order. This latest outbreak follows the death of 19 inmates in riots in the adjoining Rodeo I prison the previous week.Skip to next paragraph
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The government has deployed tanks and reportedly used weapons of war in its attempt to regain control, and on Sunday evacuated 2,500 inmates from Rodeo I to prisons elsewhere in the country. A fire broke out in the facility, and one inmate told the Associated Press that 17 people had died during the confrontation.
The dramatic events demonstrate just how far Venezuela’s prison system has deteriorated, allowing the inmates to amass enough weapons and ammunition to hold off the armed forces for five days, and counting.
Venezuelan authorities said that most of the individuals still holed up in the prison want to make peace but are being held hostage by the prison bosses, who have been identified as Francisco Ruiz Estanga, alias “El Yofre,” and as Yorvis Lopez Cortez, “El Oriente.” The pair have reportedly long controlled the prison using a private army of 1,118 men, and masterminded the hostage taking of 22 prison officials in April.
There have been reports that the bosses executed 12 prisoners who were trying to escape, though the government says that only one prisoner has died in the fighting so far.
A recent New York Times report highlighted the role of these "pranes" in San Antonio prison on Margarita Island, where prisoners openly carry assault rifles and outsiders can enter to buy drugs like crack cocaine. Inmates told the newspaper that the prison is under the control of a “pran” named Teofilo Rodriguez, alias “El Conejo.” He does not just dominate through violence, but also keeps order and ensures a good standard of living for the prisoners, they said.
A video report shows Mr. Rodriguez’s logo, a Playboy bunny, covering the walls of the prison, and even tattooed onto the bodies of his followers. In an interview with reporter Simon Romero, the boss said he was considering entering politics when he leaves prison. According to reports in the Venezuelan press, Rodriguez is guarded by two security rings, made up of 25 members, known as "pranes menores" (lesser prison bosses).
The disastrous state of affairs in Venezuela’s prisons, where these bosses often control whole institutions, has been brought about in large part by underfunding. Many prisons are highly overcrowded, with inmates greatly outnumbering the wardens.