HomeNewsAnalysisHow Venezuela's Prison Economies Drive Inmate Violence
ANALYSIS

How Venezuela's Prison Economies Drive Inmate Violence

PRISONS / 17 MAY 2012 BY ELYSSA PACHICO EN

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.

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

AUC / 18 FEB 2016

Prosecutors in Colombia believe over 100 people were murdered, dismembered and disappeared in a Bogotá prison between 1999 and 2001,…

CRIMINAL MIGRATION / 29 OCT 2012

Colombian neo-paramilitary groups, the Urabeños and the Rastrojos, are running sophisticated extortion rackets in a…

CIACS / 20 DEC 2016

A recent report has suggested that Guatemala's incarcerated former president and vice president continue to wield power from behind bars…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Tackles Illegal Fishing

15 OCT 2021

In October, InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) began a year-long project on illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Featured in Handbook for Reporting on Organized Crime

8 OCT 2021

In late September, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) published an excerpt of its forthcoming guide on reporting organized crime in Indonesia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Probing Organized Crime in Haiti

1 OCT 2021

InSight Crime has made it a priority to investigate organized crime in Haiti, where an impotent state is reeling after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, coupled with an…

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…