Venezuela's much-touted prison reform plan appears to be failing, according to recent research that shows how some of the country's most dangerous criminals control numerous penitentiaries.
After analyszing conditions at 31 of Venezuela's 52 prisons, the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones - OVP) found that eight were entirely controlled by prison bosses, known as pranes, while criminal gangs had at least partial control of a further 15 establishments. Only eight were entirely under government control.
In this study published in August, the OVP concluded that over 26,000 prisoners were housed in the prisons run by pranes.
The findings were released just days after Venezuelan authorities celebrated the alleged progress made by a prison reform plan, which began in 2017. This grandiose plan claims to rehabilitate and train inmates, protect teenagers and younger prisoners, and support those who have completed their sentences.
The reality is very different.
Inmates housed in prisons run by gangs "have to pay for everything to survive," Carolina Girón, the director of OVP, told InSight Crime.
She explained that prisoners must pay the pranes a weekly or monthly fee to guarantee their safety. They must also pay for water, food, and transport to court hearings, as well for any family or conjugal visits. The situation is similar in state-run prisons where guards frequently extort and abuse inmates.
Here, InSight Crime profiles some of Venezuela's most notorious pranes.
Alias "Niño Guerrero" - Tocorón Prison, Aragua
Héctor Rusthenford Guerrero Flores, alias "Niño Guerrero," is the pran of Tocorón prison, located in the central state of Aragua. He is also the leader of the Tren de Aragua, Venezuela's largest homegrown criminal gang with operations in other Latin American countries.
At Tocorón, Guerrero Flores charges "causes" (causas) from other prisoners to allow them to live there. This fee was set at $8 per week per prisoner as of early 2022, an investigator in Aragua, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told InSight Crime.
Multiplying this amount by the number of inmates in Tocorón - 2,700 according to the OVP's most recent report on prisons - would mean Niño Guerrero's operation potentially brings in up to $86,400 per month, or over $1 million per year. And that just covers his protection racket.
In addition to collecting the “cause,” Niño Guerrero has ordered inmates to carry out work at the prison, according to the investigator. Some are given cleaning assignments while others are charged with feeding the animals at the prison zoo. Inmates have financial knowledge or information technology skills run accounts or teach others how to conduct extortion scams via social media and other online platforms, an official with the country’s investigative police agency (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas - CICPC), who also asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime.
Guerrero Flores's influence extends far beyond Tocorón. The Tren de Aragua has a presence in at least seven states in Venezuela, according to investigations by InSight Crime. It is heavily involved in extorting business owners, kidnappings, and drug trafficking. More recently, Tren de Aragua has participated in human trafficking and migrant smuggling, as Venezuelan migration has expanded into other countries in the region, like Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.
Alias “Richardi” - Tocuyito Prison, Carabobo
Néstor Richardi Sequera Campos, alias "Richardi," seems to live a profitable life at Tocuyito prison in Carabobo state.
Like Niño Guerrero, Richardi charges a fee from inmates as well as extorting businesses in Tocuyito and other areas of Carabobo state, a member of the local merchants’ guild told InSight Crime. Sequera Campos has also reportedly sought to invest his fortune, allegedly owning delicatessens and dabbling in legal mining, according to an investigation by Alianza Rebelde Investiga and Connectas. The same report indicated that, as a big fan of baseball, Sequera Campos has organized informal games at the prison attended by famous Venezuelan player.
Alias “Pedro Rapidito” - La Pica Prison, Monagas
Pedro Manuel González Mata, alias "Pedro Rapidito" is one of the prison bosses at the Eastern Penitentiary Center, better known as La Pica, in the northeastern state of Monagas, according to an investigation by Venezuelan outlet, Reporte Confidencial.
Pedro Rapidito has built his fortune by collaborating with Venezuelan state agencies to collect criminal rents, read the report. It found Pedro Rapidito received food intended for poorer citizens from state-owned food distributors and social programs. These meals werethen resold to inmates at La Pica prison. In March, Venezuela’s Attorney General issued a warrant for the arrest of La Pica's former director in relation to these food sales.
It is uncertain what Pedro Rapidito's connection is to Tren de Oriente, a criminal organization formed at La Pica. It gained notoriety during Venezuela's 2021 regional elections when several of its members shared a video vocalizing their support for candidates of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela - PSUV). One of the politicians supported in the video, Ernesto Luna, went on to win the election and become state governor of Monagas.