For seven years under the same prison minister, organized crime groups have turned Venezuela's prisons into their own control centers. But rather than combat them, the Maduro administration has allowed their activities to expand and has renewed the questionable minister’s term.
According to a recent report by the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), systemic problems continue to plague the country’s prison system. The problems include processing delays, overcrowding, deteriorating buildings, failure to classify inmates, lack of basic vital services, and inmate possession and trafficking of weapons and drugs.
“What we’re seeing right now is a completely disastrous situation,” OVP Director Humberto Prado said in an interview with Unión Radio. “We have one of the worst prison systems in the region.”
Prado says the problems that developed in the prisons have spread to police station holding cells, which are packed with 32,000 prisoners at a 400 percent overcrowding rate. And the strengthening of organized criminal groups within the prisons known as “pranatos” as a form of government is compounding the issue because their dominance over criminal activities has spread from inside the prisons to the outside.
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Overcrowding in Venezuela’s prisons and pretrial detention centers is currently at 161 percent, and the nationwide prison population has reached 57,096, contributing factors to anarchy and lack of government control. These circumstances have favored and fueled the pranato criminal structure, which has spread into the country’s police stations and mining zones.
Despite the government’s plans in 2013 to implement new prison reforms featuring a “humanist” approach, the “pranes,” or pranato leaders, continue to control and carry out criminal activities from inside Venezuelan prisons. The extent of the pranes’ power was recently revealed in Tocorón prison, which is controlled by pran Héctor Guerrero, alias “El Niño.” Guerrero may be behind the murder of a teenage girl at the hands of Tocorón prisoners after her family refused to pay extortion fees.
“Tocorón is the clearest illustration of the pranato [phenomenon] in Venezuela. If pranatos can act with total freedom anywhere, it’s Tocorón. [Prison] Minister Iris Varela has been saying for over a year that she’s going to close that prison, and she still hasn’t done it,” said Carlos Nieto Palma, head of A Window to Liberty (Una Ventana a la Libertad), a watchdog organization focusing on prisons.
“There are mafias running the prison quotas who pay the pranes so they can transfer people to [Tocorón]. El Niño controls absolutely everything,” he said.
Moreover, the pranes running Tocorón have gyms, pools, a zoo, restaurants and grocery stores where they can get food that cannot even be found on the shelves of supermarkets outside the prison due to Venezuela’s economic crisis.
Nieto also alleges that pranato activities are supported by the Prison Service Ministry.
“They’re strong allies. The pranes exist in Venezuela because the ministry has allowed it,” he said.
But despite such problematic circumstances, in 2018, President Nicolás Maduro reinstated Iris Varela as prison minister after the National Constituent Assembly managed to remove her for five months. Varela is one of Maduro’s closest collaborators and has headed up the Prison Service Ministry since its creation in 2011, with no improvements in Venezuela’s prison system to date.