Carlos Nieto Palma has witnessed the worst of Venezuela's prison system during the past two decades as a lawyer defending the rights of inmates.
He has seen the prisons become cauldrons for mafias led by "pranatos" -- crime bosses who now dominate illicit activities both within and outside jailhouse walls. He has been present at the aftermath of prison riots that have left hundreds dead and thousands injured.
Nieto Palma is now advising Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó in the development of his security plan for a potential transition government. InSight Crime spoke to Nieto Palma, coordinator for prisoners' rights non-governmental organization Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Liberty), about Venezuela's crumbling prisons and their role in organized crime. Below is an edited version of the interview:
Iris Varela, director of The Ministry of Penitentiary Service, claims that during her management, which started on July 2011 and with the creation of the ministry she represents, the “pranato” figure has ended in prisons…
The Venezuelan prison mafia is not only led by the “pranes." The mafia circle is also conformed by officials with the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana - GNB) and the Ministry of Penitentiary Service, which before its creation, the officials of the Ministry of Interior and Justice were the ones involved. The weaponry we saw when the “pran” “El Conejo” was killed must have entered through the prison doors and not by helicopter. The prisons are guarded by the GNB on the outside and by the Ministry of Penitentiary Service officials on the inside. I have a quite peculiar theory: I believe that the officials created the “pranes” because it was easier to negotiate with just one or a few people rather than negotiating with all the inmates at once. For a business to be profitable, it has to be effective. All organized crime that operates inside the prisons ends up being a business for the officials.
When did the “pranato” figure emerge in Venezuela?
The “pranato” figure is recent. The “pranes” were created during the Hugo Chavez administration, while Tareck El Aissami was Minister of Interior and Justice. That's when family members began to stay overnight. They would arrive on Fridays and stayed for days and even weeks sleeping in the prisons. The inmates said the family members staying overnight were part of praying groups, but in reality they were having parties (…) Before the Chavista government, which started in 1999, there were inmates who had the resources to buy good positions inside the prisons. That inmate population had homemade arms but never the sophisticated high-powered weaponry that the “pranes” have exhibited, even on social media.
Was there any corruption in prisons before Chavismo?
There was corruption before Chavismo, but not as strong as it is now. During the 80s and 90s there were also illicit businesses an0d money trafficking. The prison directors were the ones in charge of negotiating meals (...) However, Iris Varela has done nearly nothing with her New Penitentiary Regime plan. If inmates have nothing to do all day, they have no chance to reintegrate, but they do commit crimes. As Gómez Grillo said well: Prisons are a business as lucrative as PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.). And, unfortunately, our prisons are universities for crime where kidnappings, extortions and organized crime activities are still being planned out.
In your opinion, what are the biggest penitentiary issues?
The gravest issue is that there has been no compliance of article 272 from the Constitution of 1999. If it were applied, we would be the envy of every country in the world, with professionals, academics and decentralized prisons, which instead of being managed by a ministry, would be by the government (…) The entire prison crisis is joint. The procedural delays are terrible. There are no official numbers in Venezuela; the NGO has made approximations based on our own studies. At least 80 percent of convicts in Venezuela have procedural delays and do not have a definitively firm sentence, which according to the Constitution itself, they are allegedly innocent, for they are innocent until proven guilty.
The NGO you direct has claimed that police station cells are a parallel penitentiary system, what is this based on?
Since the creation of the Ministry of Penitentiary Service there was an increase of overcrowding in police station cells, which are centers for 48-hour detentions. Almost a month after taking office, minister Iris Varela issued a notice in which she prohibited the admission of inmates in penitentiaries without her previous consent. We, among other things, have bad memory; we don’t remember that when Varela issued the notice Chavez was president and, through a national channel, he expressed his disagreement on the prison crisis.
The centers have become smaller prisons where both police officials and inmates carry out extortions. These places are not equipped with the minimum conditions to keep convicts for prolonged periods of time. We had never seen as many inmates dying of hunger, malnutrition and disease as we are currently seeing. According to Una Ventana a la Libertad, there are more than 50,000 inmates in 500 police station cells throughout the country, which is almost the same number of inmates in prisons. Iris Varela has admitted that there are over 51,000 prisoners in the ministry’s prisons.
Generally, the people who defend inmate rights are questioned, what would you say to the people who criticize your job?
We have never argued that a criminal should not be imprisoned for a crime they committed. But we do demand that their human rights be respected, which are also universal human rights.
Venezuela faces the worst electrical crisis of its history since March 2019, how has this affected the penitentiary centers?
Prisoners are undergoing the same issues as all the rest of Venezuelans. The prisons don’t have water or electricity either and food has spoiled. But the situation is even more critical in the police station cells. In less than a week, during the first blackout registered in March, two inmates died in a National Police station in Caracas. One of the prisoners was murdered and the other one died from tuberculosis. Medical negligence also influenced both cases (…) Within this context it has been much more complicated for family members of inmates held in police station cells to bring food and care for their loved ones.
Recently, a UN human right commission visited the country and met with you, what did the experts conclude regarding the prison situation in Venezuela?
The UN delegation that visited the country knows that Iris Varela disguised the prisons because they were coming. In fact, the delegates and press were not allowed access to some of the places. This is something rare. This type of visits should not have the presence of the minister and UN delegates must have unlimited access, as established by the protocols. Additionally, the sick and malnourished inmates were transferred before the arrival of the visitors. I suppose this will be underlined in the report, since they came to perform an exploratory visit for the study they are developing. We are in permanent contact with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights(OHCHR).