Venezuela is not exactly witnessing halcyon days.
There are electricity and food shortages, inflation, and rising crime. As violence has increased, another problem has gone from bad to worse: the nation's overcrowded prisons.
That's why a group of Venezuelan mothers and wives – both pro-Chávez and anti-Chávez – were united in anger on the streets of Caracas Monday.
“We demand a solution!” the women chanted, over and over. They held signs reading, “No more death! No more hunger! No more injustice!”
Fanny Garcia, who was jailed six months for allegedly stealing a car, says she attended the march to demand basic human rights for her son and all the others sitting in overcrowded cells.
“You can make a mistake and end up in jail, but you are still a human being,” says Ms. Garcia, her voice rising with every injustice she lists. “They are not animals.”
Humberto Prado, the director of the non-profit Venezuelan Prison Observer, says that there are 32,000 inmates in the nation´s 33 prisons and penitentiaries, while there is only room for 12,500. That has led to human rights violations, squalid conditions, and more violence.
Most violent in Latin America
Venezuelan prisons are among the most violent in Latin America, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a nonprofit monitoring group based in New York. The group cites weak security, insufficient guards, corruption, overcrowding, and deteriorating infrastructure as the main causes.
A 2009 HRW report notes that the director of the prison service said crime had fallen by 52 percent in prisons because of efforts to "humanize" the system. According to the Venezuelan Prison Observer, there were 498 deaths in prisons in 2007, 422 in 2008, and 366 last year. But many say conditions are still ripe for abuse, and most of the prisoners face long waits for trials or sentencing.
Earlier this month, a riot left eight inmates dead in the western state of Tachira. Inmates often fight over control of cells and drug sales, while prison guards have been accused of feeding the violence by selling weapons to feuding inmates.
The marchers who gathered Monday in Caracas were there to protest procedural delays in trials. Mr. Prado says 80 percent of all inmates are being held because of delays in getting their cases processed by the courts. “With this overpopulation, how can conditions be human?” he says.
Inmates also launched a hunger strike to protest the delays. The state-run news agency posted a report Saturday saying that the situation had normalized, and that the government will address delays by extending court hours of operation. Those hours were originally reduced to address an electricity shortage.
But Sandra Guerrero, a news reporter with The National newspaper in Venezuela, says that the women fighting for their husbands and sons in jail will keep the pressure on. “The movement has really grown in the past two or three years,” she says.
For many anger is not directed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez himself, but at everyone around him.
Sugey Sarabia, whose husband has been in jail for a year and a half, leaving her with four children to feed, goes to every march that she can. “So that they hear us, so that they do something,” she says. “We are their spokespeople. Everyone that Chavez hired to do his job, who is not doing anything, is at fault. I do not blame Chávez. I am a Chavista 100 percent.”
But she says some inmates – including her husband – have lost their ardor for President Chavez as they languish in jail. So have a few of the women at the protest march.
Alice Minorta, whose son was convicted of murder, and has been in jail for a year and three months, says that she always voted for Chavez. But the lack of human rights and justice that she has witnessed has changed her mind. “He does nothing about this,” she said.
An angry mother beside her, who did not share her name, butted in: “Who is the thief? The one desperate in the street who steals or the one sitting up there stealing everything from everyone? You tell me!” she said, almost screaming.