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.

By , Guest blogger

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    A child watches the troop activity from a window near the El Rodeo II prison in Guatire, Venezuela, Monday, June 20, 2011. Thousands of National Guard troops stormed the adjacent El Rodeo I prison complex last June 17 seeking to disarm prisoners days after a bloody riot, setting off gunfights with resisting inmates that have left at least one inmate and two soldiers dead, and more than 18 wounded.
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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.

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.

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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.

A report from 2009 put the prisoner-to-guard ratio in Rodeo II at 12 to one, while the Inter-American Court of Human Rights reportedly found in 2006 that the average ratio in La Pica prison in east Venezuela was 63 to one. This makes it difficult for the wardens to control the prisoners. Their task is made harder by the fact that, as InSight has noted, many jailed gang leaders retain their connections to the outside criminal world and often continue to run their gangs, and manage extortion and kidnapping networks, from behind bars. This means that the inmates have both the resources to bribe their jailers, and the power to intimidate them.

It is this power imbalance which has apparently allowed the inmates of Rodeo II to gain access to such a high quantity of weapons, through the collusion of officials who help smuggle them in.

But, in a sign of the polarization of Venezuela’s political scene, the government has accused opposition politicians of masterminding the crisis in order to destablilize the government. President Hugo Chavez is currently abroad recovering from surgery, and has not commented on the events.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV) tried to pin the blame on the opposition, claiming that the MUD coalition may have “links” with the gang leaders, and has been giving them instructions from outside. Officials called for an investigation into these alleged links, and a senior member of the party said that there would be a commission to look at the “behavior of some opposition congressmen over the issue.” The politician accused Chavez's opponents of trying to generate chaos by causing “situations of ungovernability.”

Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami also implied that anti-Chavez forces were behind the mess in the Rodeo prisons, stating that the army had acted within the law and respected human rights, and “without the bloodshed that some sections of the right are betting on.”

These comments from Mr. Chavez’s close associates followed remarks by opposition politician Tomas Guanipa, from the Primero Justicia party, who said that the management of prisons over the last 12 years had been an “insult” to the Venezuelan people, and called on the government to take responsibility for the current crisis.

Using the crisis to score political points may only get in the way of the prison reform that Chavez’s government has promised (and so far has failed to deliver). Venezuela has already been in denial for some time about just how troubled the country's prisons are. Insisting that the current riots are related to politics, and not to other serious problems like overcrowding and the strength of the "pranes," looks like another case of the government turning a blind eye.

--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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