In Venezuela's prisons, inmates are the wardens

GlobalPost | May. 14, 2012 | Caracas, Venezuela

A cloud of marijuana bounces along with the bass line from a stack of six-foot high speakers in the corner of this large hall, its smell infused with that of urine.

Through the darkness, noise and the bustling crowd, it takes a moment before you notice that everyone here is carrying a machine gun, a rifle or pistol — not slung over their backs or tucked into their pants, but menacingly prone. Others toss grenades up and down or sharpen knives while enjoying the cocktail of drugs and music.

Outside the makeshift club, the Venezuelan sun bathes a small soccer field. Supporters are armed and one player even goes in for tackles with a pistol in hand. Corridors in the building are lined with gunmen, smiling and joking, seemingly unaware of their own terror.

Prison guards are nowhere to be seen here at La Planta, a typical Venezuelan jail that often sees gunfights and riots.

“If the guards mess with us, we shoot them,” says one prisoner, asking not to be identified. “I've seen a man have his head cut off and people play football with it.” Others who have spent time inside, as well as videos that appear online, corroborate his stories.

Last year, about 500 people were killed in Venezuela’s prisons, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory. Inmates frequently clash with each other, prison guards and soldiers who are sent in to maintain control during riots.

And now the guns inside La Planta are going off. The government is now trying to shut down the prison, though a group of inmates refusing to leave have kept authorities at bay for nearly two weeks. Troops are gathered outside along with hundreds of worried relatives.

An identical situation took place last June when more than 5,000 troops spent a month trying to quell an uprising at El Rodeo jail, just outside Caracas.

“We face a truly serious prison crisis in which the state has not shown up with solutions and this has led to chaos,” said Carlos Nieto, a lawyer and university professor who runs Window to Freedom, a local prison watchdog.

“There are huge problems with the prisons here in Venezuela,” he said. “The inmates do absolutely nothing; they don’t study, work or anything. On top of this is the access to weapons, drugs and alcohol.”

A deficient and corrupt staff as well as severe overcrowding, Nieto added, contribute to an “explosive cocktail,” which detonates frequently. Indeed, the day GlobalPost visited the human rights specialist, the front page of the country's national newspaper, El Nacional, published a story about 18 deaths that took place the previous weekend inside several jails.

The country’s 30 prisons are designed to hold 12,500 inmates. But in reality, they house just under 50,000, according to Window to Freedom. In La Planta — built to house 350 in 1964 but now housing about 2,500 — many inmates sleep in the corridors, with rats scurrying in between them.

“The conditions are deplorable, inhumane,” Nieto said.

There are reports of gladiatorial contests in the country’s other complexes, fights organized by gang leaders in which contenders battle to the bloody end for the entertainment of inmates. It was one of these bouts that left two dead and 128 injured in February at a jail in Uribana, western Venezuela.

La Planta itself saw a fire break out in 1996 after authorities fired tear gas inside. Local newspapers reported that 25 prisoners burned to death, their bones glued to the prison furniture. Two years earlier, 130 inmates were burned or hacked to death at a prison in the country’s western state of Zulia.

It is not only weapons that are easy to obtain within prison walls. Mobile phones and computers, hooked up to the internet, are commonplace. With such access to the outside, inmates can control and partake in gang activities that no doubt exacerbate Caracas’ already troubled streets — with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Gangsters, who have worked their way up the prison hierarchy, control the sites and therefore the flow of weapons. Nieto blames “functionaries of the state” for the weapons inside, adding that it is a “big business run by an internal mafia.” The type of weaponry, Nieto said, indicates a high level of corruption. “They have the types of weapons that can only be obtained by the country’s armed forces. ... No one else has these.”

Last year, after President Hugo Chavez went silent before announcing that he was suffering from cancer, the El Rodeo riots became a major political issue for the country. On the president’s return to action, Iris Varela was appointed as new prisons minister and she quickly came up with a quick-fix solution.

Some 20,000 inmates would be released onto the streets of Caracas, which already has a murder rate comparable to that of Baghdad during the Iraq War.

“In prison, there are people that do not pose a danger to society,” she said. “They can be handled outside prison.”

The murder rate in Venezuela last year averaged 67 per 100,000 people, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, which labelled it “the most violent year in the nation's history.”

Nieto blames the country's prison problems on Chavez, who has not succeeded in his pledge to revamp the system.

Chavez himself was locked up after the 1992 coup attempt that launched his career. Despite failing, the coup turned Chavez into a national icon, standing up against what many saw as the corrupt rule of then-President Carlos Andres Perez.

In his biography of Venezuela’s president, author Bart Jones writes that Chavez was horrified as guards failed to intervene when a man was raped and murdered in a cell above him.

“Today, the prisons are much worse than before Chavez arrived,” Nieto said.

In the long line to leave La Planta, visitors are numbed to the horror of what they have witnessed inside. They see it every weekend.

Going the other way are two young men, carrying duffel bags and — no matter what their crime — an innocence they will almost certainly lose in order to survive inside.