Four police in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira were killed in one day, reportedly on the orders of gang leaders from a local prison, highlighting the power inmates have in the country's corrupt and chaotic penitentiary system.
The killings occurred in two separate incidents in Tachira on November 18. In the first, two police officers were shot on a road leading to the town of Tariba. A third police agent and a transit police officer were killed in another attack south of San Cristobal, reported El Universal.
According to El Nacional, the assassinations were ordered by prison gang bosses, known as “pranes,” in San Cristobal in retaliation for the killing of two alleged criminals by police on November 17. The suspects had reportedly shot and killed a business owner in the city after robbing him.
InSight Crime Analysis
Pranes in Venezuelan prisons exercise an enormous amount of power, as evidenced by these recent assassinations. The independent Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP) estimates that of the country’s 34 jails, the government only has control in six, leaving the remainder in the hands of the inmates.
This control enables pranes to run extortion and kidnapping networks from within their cells, as well as operate black markets in the prisons themselves. The notorious La Planta jail in Caracas, which was closed in May following violent clashes between inmates and Venezuelan troops, reportedly had an internal economy worth $3.7 million. As analyst Marie Metz notes, pranes are afforded the use of cell phones and the internet, and are sometimes even allowed to leave the prison to exercise.
Driving the problem is Venezuela’s under-funded and overcrowded penitentiary system. The government embarked on an ambitious reform program in July 2011 under a new Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP), which is supposed to see 24 new facilities built within two years. These would house pre-trial detainees and so relieve the strain on existing jails. So far, however, little progress has been made, with no signs that the system is about to improve any time soon.
Venezuela is, of course, not alone in examples of gangs ordering hits from the inside against officials. In Guatemala earlier this year, a prison director was killed after only 15 days on the job. He had reportedly tried to implement new disciplinary measures against inmates, leading them to order his killing.