In one of Venezuela's most violent and overcrowded prisons, the underground economy reportedly brings in some $3.7 million a year, helping to explain why inmates reacted with such fury when the government moved to shut the place down.
Early Thursday morning, a fresh round of violence broke out at one of Venezuela's most troubled prisons, La Planta, located in central Caracas. Amid reports of gunfire and explosions in the penitentiary, Caracas closed one of its main highways and deployed the National Guard, who shot tear gas onto the prison's roof from a nearby road.
La Planta is emblematic of the deep problems in Venezuela's prison system. It is overcrowded, typically holding over 2,600 inmates in a facility built for just 350. Thanks to corrupt wardens, the facility is filled with smuggled goods, including guns, grenades, and drugs. And La Planta is run by powerful prison gang leaders, known as "pranes," who operate kidnapping and extortion schemes from inside.
The pranes also oversee the prison's black market, which, according to information given by the Ministry of Prison Affairs to El Universal, handles at least 16 million bolivares (about $3.7 million) a year.
The estimate is calculated from minimum extortion payments which inmates reportedly hand over for a range of services. This includes a weekly tax on all prisoners known as a "Causa," the biggest money-earner in the prison, worth an estimated 6.9 millon bolivares (about $1.6 million).
These taxes are paid to whichever gang controls a particular section of La Planta. According to the Ministry of Prison Affairs, the jail is divided into 14 divisions, each one like an independently functioning economy.
Other extortion payments include a weekly protection tax, known as the "Terror Base," as well as a monthly fee, the "Cantinas," which some inmates pay for the right to sell basic goods in the prison. According to El Universal, about 50 inmates pay another tax for special housing. There is also a fee for conjugal visits, and for the right to sell drugs.
The numbers provided to El Universal do not include estimates for how much cash other money-making ventures may be bringing in for the prison gangs, including extortion, kidnapping, and drug-dealing schemes, run from within the prison with collaborators on the outside.
Many prison systems have their own underground economy. In the US, cigarette packets used to be the primary currency for trade between inmates, until they were banned in 2004, and replaced by cans of mackerel. What is unusual about the economy in La Planta is the lengths inmates have gone to protect it.
After the government announced it had thwarted a mass escape attempt from La Planta in late April, Minister of Prison Affairs Iris Varela said that the facility would be shut down, and all inmates transferred to other penitentiaries. On May 5, the government followed through on its promise, transferring some 300 prisoners to another Caracas-based prison complex, Yare, which has seen fierce conflicts of its own. Three days later, La Planta exploded into violence. Security forces battled inmates for hours with gunfire and tear gas. The families of inmates protested outside the prison walls, lighting fires and clashing with police. Because La Planta is based in central Caracas, the violence had particularly acute reverberations, backing up traffic for miles and causing those living near the prison complex to barricade themselves in their homes for days.
Inmates released a video statement (see below) in which several men -- presumably pranes or other influential inmates -- addressed Varela, and stated they would not stop resisting until they were granted visitation rights again. They also demanded that inmates who had already fulfilled their prison sentences or were being held without charges be allowed to see a lawyer.
The inmates argue that they are resisting the planned transfers because it would take them far away from the Caracas courts that are handling their cases. The transfers would also place them in detention centers that may have even more severe problems with overcrowding and violence, some of their relatives have said.
But another possible reason for this resistance to La Planta's shutdown is the profits inmates are leaving behind. La Planta's intricate system of extortion fees will not transfer easily to other penal institutions, which may already have their own systems in place. Neither will the gang hierarchies. The government has good reason to close down La Planta, but they are forcing thousands of inmates to leave their established order and enter a new system, one where they may not command the same standing they enjoyed in La Planta. It is not only the inmates' legal cases at stake -- it is also their economic livelihoods.