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Corruption Fueling Black Markets in Guatemala Prisons

GUATEMALA / 4 FEB 2014 BY MICHAEL LOHMULLER EN

Corruption in Guatemala's prisons has created a prison black market where everything from cell phones to prison transfers are for sale, in another sign of the deep rooted institutional weakness rife in the region's prison systems.

The corruption and debility in Guatemala's Penitentiary System (SP) has allowed prisoners to establish a brutal hierarchy with the inmates that are able to impose their will on others enjoying the most privileges, sources told La Hora.

Upon entering prison for the first time, an inmate is subjected to physical and sexual abuse. In some cases, however, they can prevent this from happening by paying $380 to $640, reported La Hora.

Prison guards and staff have been frequently denounced as complicit in this behavior and accused of profiting from the system. They reportedly charge inmates thrown into solitary confinement for misbehaving between $12 and $38 to leave and have the incident removed from their record to avoid a longer prison stay. There have also been cases of inmates paying to be transferred from one prison to another -- at a cost of over $19,000 -- a process involving high ranking prison officials, reported La Hora.

Corruption also facilitates the entry of contraband. Cell phones, for example, are available in the country's prisons, but can cost anywhere between $65 and $380, and are used to commit extortion or plan criminal activity outside prison walls.

InSight Crime Analysis

Overcrowding, under-resourcing, institutional corruption and the growth of prison gangs have created similar conditions to those highlighted in Guatemala throughout Latin America.

In many cases prisons are controlled almost entirely by prisoners themselves, whether it is the kingpins known as "prans" in Venezuela, the prisoner groups called "delegates" in Bolivia, or gangs that operate in and outside prison walls, such as Central America's "maras" or the First Capital Command (PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho) in Brazil. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

These inmates, along with corrupt officials, oversee what can be huge prison economies -- in Venezuela, for instance, the prison black market has been reported to bring in about $3.7 million per year. Sometimes, as with payments noted in Guatemala, these are internal economies, focused on drug sales or charging for everything from beds to privileges. However, these economies often also extend outside the prison walls. This is especially prevalent in Central America where gangs, especially the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, make extensive use of cell phones to commit extortion

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