HomeNewsAnalysisCoronavirus Unrest Sparks Surge in Riots in Latin America’s Prisons
ANALYSIS

Coronavirus Unrest Sparks Surge in Riots in Latin America’s Prisons

COLOMBIA / 22 JUL 2020 BY SETH ROBBINS EN

Inmate uprisings have ripped through prisons in Latin America amid COVID-19 outbreaks, offering further evidence that the region’s prison systems are buckling under the pressure of the pandemic.

A survey of 18 countries found that 11 had recorded prisoner riots in recent months, according to a June report published by the Center for Latin American Insecurity and Violence in conjunction with the Latin American Society of Criminology. Six countries saw prisoners die amid the riots, according to the report.

Across the region prisoners demanded more visits with family members -- who often provide them food -- improved sanitary conditions to avoid contagion, and increased use of personal protective equipment by prison staff.

The countries surveyed included Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Belize, Paraguay, Panama, Colombia, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Argentina, Guatemala, Brazil, Costa Rica, Chile, Bolivia, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic. A total of 27 prison systems were part of the study, as penitentiaries in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil were broken down to include state and federal systems.

SEE ALSO: In-Depth Coverage of Prisons

Fears of coronavirus' spread through prisons led many countries in the region to implement inmate release programs to ease overcrowding. Nearly 70 percent of the prison systems surveyed released prisoners, mostly those susceptible to complications from the disease and non-violent offenders, the report found.

Yet the releases were extremely limited. Five prison systems reduced their prison population by less than 1 percent, and another nine reduced theirs between one to five percent. Only three managed to achieve higher reductions: Paraguay released between 5 to 10 percent of its prisoners, and Chile and Nicaragua released up to 15 percent.

In comparison, Paraguay's prison system currently holds three times the amount of inmates it is equipped to secure, while Nicaragua has double, according to the report's findings.

The report also examined the toll that the coronavirus has had on prison staff, reporting that two out of three systems had personnel test positive for COVID-19.

Researchers warned of the further spread of COVID-19 within Latin America’s prisons, stating that "overpopulation will continue to grow," and that more inmates and prison staff are “likely to die.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Inmate riots will persist as long as reports of COVID-19 outbreaks among prisoners continue to mount in Latin American countries, where overcrowded and unsanitary jails are Petri dishes for the virus and prisoners have little recourse to demand protection.

A look at local news media reports of positive tests among prison populations shows that the virus has been found in jails in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Brazil. Others around the region are in all likelihood facing similar outbreaks.

The virus has spread even where officials have released prisoners to ease overcrowding -- a move that can’t possibly ameliorate years of jails being overloaded. In Argentina, inmates went on hunger strike and scaled prison walls to demand being allowed to serve their sentences at a home. The government's release of 800 prisoners, however, was criticized by victims' rights activists and sparked protests against the policy.

Other measures have helped to create a tinderbox. The deadliest riot occurred in May at the Los Llanos facility in Venezuela, when 50 prisoners were killed and 75 more injured after protests broke out over prisoners’ concerns about hunger. Visits by family members had been barred due to the pandemic, but the vast majority of prisoners in Venezuela depend on their loved ones for food and other essentials.

A lack of medical attention and sanitary supplies has also raised tensions among prisoners. According to the report, less than a third of 23 prison systems reported having the ability to test for the virus in the first two months of the outbreak.

In Colombia, the Villavicencio jail, south of Bogota, saw some 700 of its 1,800 prisoners test positive for coronavirus in early May. At that time, the jail counted only two health providers, a nurse and an assistant nurse, both of whom also contracted the virus, El Espectador reported. Colombia was one of the first countries in the region to see deadly rioting within its prisons as the virus spread in March.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profile

In Peru, prisoners angered over the lack of protection and sanitary supplies rioted, setting mattresses ablaze. At that time in late April, more than 600 prisoners had contracted the virus and 13 had died from it, Reuters reported.

Brazil’s jails -- long run by powerful prison gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) -- have seen prisoners break free and guards taken hostage.

Prison staff have also been sickened, exacerbating an already massive shortage of corrections officers in the region’s jails.

InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley wrote in a Foreign Affairs editorial that the neglect of basic healthcare, sanitation and nutritional needs within Latin America’s penitentiary systems has further empowered prison bosses and gangs during the pandemic -- making them increasingly seen by prisoners as the only source of help amid the spread of the virus.

Lacking basic protections, prisoners are bound to have their fears of contagion stoked by COVID-19 outbreaks -- and that fear alone is enough to spark a riot.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ALFONSO CANO / 22 MAR 2011

Colombia's defense minister stated that the rebel supreme leader will fall soon, after his security chief was killed…

COLOMBIA / 16 NOV 2010

The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports that elements of the Colombian Army, Police and Air Force carried out a…

COLOMBIA / 29 APR 2015

President Juan Manuel Santos announced a new security plan intended to further disrupt the operations of Colombia's already weakened criminal…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua Becomes Truly Transnational

29 JUL 2022

This week, InSight Crime published a deep dive into the total control that Venezuelan mega-gang, Tren de Aragua, has over the lives of those it smuggles between Venezuela and Chile…

THE ORGANIZATION

Turkish Traffickers Delivering Latin American Cocaine to Persian Gulf

15 JUL 2022

Last week, InSight Crime published the second half of an investigation piecing together the emerging role of Turkish cocaine traffickers in supplying Russia and the Persian Gulf, which are among…

THE ORGANIZATION

Turkey as a Lynchpin in European Cocaine Pipeline

8 JUL 2022

InSight Crime is extending its investigation into the cocaine pipeline to Europe, and tracking the growing connections between Latin American drug traffickers and European criminal organizations. This led us to…

THE ORGANIZATION

Memo Fantasma Coverage Gets Worldwide Attention

1 JUL 2022

Guillermo Acevedo, the former Colombian drug lord and paramilitary commander better known as Memo Fantasma, may soon be allowed to leave prison. Since first revealing the identity of Memo Fantasma…

THE ORGANIZATION

Who Are Memo Fantasma and Sergio Roberto de Carvalho?

24 JUN 2022

Inside the criminal career of Memo Fantasma  In March 2020, InSight Crime revealed the identity and whereabouts of Memo Fantasma, a paramilitary commander and drug trafficker living in…