Recent comments on television by Venezuela's head of the penitentiary system blatantly exposed the extent to which prisons have been left under the inmates' control, to the point where authorities now appear to rely on prisoners to supply internal security.
The insight comes from an April 30 television interview of Venezuela's Minister of Popular Power for the Penitentiary Service (Ministra del Poder Popular para el Servicio Penitenciario), María Iris Varela Rangel, which was posted and transcribed by Panorama.
In the interview, Varela talked openly about a deadly, late-April prison riot in the José Antonio Anzoátegui Center, commonly known as Puente Ayala prison. In a series of striking comments, Varela revealed that she was contacted directly by inmates from Puente Ayala, one of many prisons that is going through what Venezuelan authorities have termed "transition," which are new penitentiaries centered on the rehabilitation of inmates instead of their punishment.
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On the day of the riot, Varela asserted that the violence was due to inmates attempting to block the government's new prison regime, according to El Universal. But in the interview, Varela added a new twist: she said that she had called for inmate assistance to "neutralize" the disturbance.
"They call me in the early hours of Wednesday morning [April 26] and tell me that there was a violent situation," she explained. "The prisoners themselves call because, of course, over there, there is no control, and they have mobile phones with which they can communicate, right? And they tell me that there was a violent incident […] because a group of inmates tried to take control of the prison."
"So I told them: 'Do you want the transition? You want the new regime, right? So protect the population and neutralize ['reduzcan'] the rioters, and I want to know what their motive and their demands are'."
As many as nine people were killed in the riot, she added.
During the television interview, the minister also said that those responsible would be punished, a departure from the impunity that inmates previously enjoyed, assured Varela. Varela added that "pranes," Venezuela's infamous prison bosses that have enjoyed near complete control over certain penitentiaries, "do not exist anymore."
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The implications of Varela's comments are serious: Venezuela's highest prison authority effectively told inmates to take matters into their own hands in order to ensure the implementation of the government's new prison policy. Coupled with Varela's request that prisoners provide her with information on the roots of the riot, the minister's statement offers a clear indication that Venezuela's government has lost control of at least one, and perhaps several more, of its prisons.
This is further highlighted by the nonchalance with which the official discusses the availability of mobile phones behind bars. Varela has been the target of criticism for not blocking telephone and internet signals in prison. And, in a further illustration of this lack of resolve, the deadline for the minister to implement this measure, according to El Nacional, was April 15.
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In addition, several of the victims of the Puente Ayala riot were shot and a number of firearms were found, providing more evidence of the prison contraband activities.
Finally, Varela's assertion that pranes no longer rule Venezuela's prison world is not convincing, given these signs of ongoing criminal activities behind bars and the widespread power pranes publicly enjoy.
Unfortunately, such extensive self-governance by inmates is not uncommon in Latin America. In one of the most extreme examples chronicled by InSight Crime following an extensive field investigation, large swathes of Guatemala's prisons came under the rule of the late Byron Lima. Among the pillars of the former military officer's rule were his extensive ties to Guatemala's top penitentiary authorities, and his control of the contraband behind bars. What's more, one former minister admitted he used Lima to help deal with security matters inside of the prisons.