Political support from career criminals is usually a matter of skulduggery and campaign finance. But one prison gang in Venezuela broke with tradition, releasing a video in which its members gave a ringing endorsement to local candidates.
On August 8, during primary elections held by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela – PSUV), a video was shared on social media in which two inmates at La Pica prison, located in the northeastern Monagas state, publicly expressed their support for a group of local candidates.
Two inmates can be seen claiming that Tren del Oriente supports the current governor, Yelitze Santaella, as well as mayoral candidates in the municipalities of Maturín, Ezequiel Zamora and Santa Bárbara.
The camera then pans to a large crowd of prisoners who cheer, applaud and chant, "Yelitze, Yelitze!" Yelitze Santaella is currently seeking a third consecutive term as the governor of Monagas. She is a veteran of PSUV politics, having previously served as governor of neighboring Delta Amacuro state between 2000 and 2008.
A local investigator, who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for security reasons, explained that Tren de Oriente is a mega-gang that uses La Pica prison in the city of Maturín as its center of operations.
“They handle extortion and drugs there. They have a whole drug monopoly [in Monagas] out of La Pica,” the researcher said.
La Pica is one of five prisons in Venezuela to so far be outside the sphere of a government plan passed in 2013 to help authorities regain control of prisons.
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Prison gangs have a lengthy history with politicians in Venezuela, but it is unclear for whose benefit this video was made.
It is difficult to imagine that Santaella and the other candidates would have been thrilled to hear their names being chanted by members of a criminal gang. While it is unknown when the video was recorded, it only circulated widely on the day of the PSUV primary, making it unlikely that it would serve as intimidation to political opponents or increase voter support.
And while none of the candidates has so far commented on the video, it raises the question of some sort of relationship between PSUV politicians and Tren del Oriente in Monagas.
While there is no current evidence of such a deal, this would fit a national pattern. Senior officials inside the government of President Nicolás Maduro have been linked to negotiations with some of the country's foremost prison gangs, allowing these organizations to continue and grow their criminal activities in exchange for various types of support.
The former prisons minister, Iris Varela, reportedly maintained ties to Teófilo Rodríguez, alias "El Conejo," leader of the now-closed prison of San Antonio on the island of Santa Margarita as well as Wilmer José Brizuela, alias "Wilmito," the former prison boss of Vista Hermosa prison, in Bolívar state.
In addition to receiving favorable conditions inside prison, inmates from these gangs have also been used by the Chavista regime. In February 2019, 40 inmates at the Santa Ana penitentiary in Táchira state were allegedly sent to the border on orders of the government to stop humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela.
In July 2019, when discussing the possibility of a United States invasion, Iris Varela told InSight Crime that "if they [the United States government] threaten us with 5,000 marines, we have 45,000 prison inmates."