Prison riot at Uribana

| Feb. 10, 2013 | Uribana, Venezuela

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Outside the morgue, hearses line up as if they were taxis at a taxi rank. National Guard separate the building from the hundreds of family members waiting patiently for news of their loved ones. Every few minutes, a hearse backs up to a large door and a coffin is laid inside.

On the morgue’s wall is a scribbled list of 24 names. We know that at least double that number have perished in Venezuela’s worst prison riot in nearly two decades. In the absence of adequate information from the government, there are rumors outside both the morgue and jail itself that the dead number in the hundreds.

“This happens all the time and nothing changes. We know nothing about what’s happening.” Yolanda Rodríguez told me just outside the prison walls, waiting for information about her 24-year-old son who was inside.

“They're not dogs, they're not animals, they're people like us," Angelia Ibarra said, crying, seeking information about her 25-year-old son. "The true animals are the guards and government."

I’m in Uribana, near the Venezuela city of Barquisimeto, at yet another prison riot. The official death toll here is around sixty though there is no way to verify this.

I’ve seen this many times before, all over the country. Here in Venezuela, prisons are lawless, Dante-esque holes where inmates are left to fend for themselves amongst a cocktail of weapons, drugs and alcohol. The guards, who local rights group suspect aid the influx of weapons, dare not enter.

“If the guards mess with us, we shoot them,” one prisoner told me when I ventured inside La Planta jail, in Caracas, before it was shut down by the government last year. The concrete walls — inside — are pockmarked with bullet holes and burned with scorchmarks.

I wandered down a corridor filled with inmates armed with machine guns, rifles and grenades — not concealed behind their backs or stuffed down their trousers but menacingly prone.

In a huge hall, filled with the bassline from a stack of six-foot high speakers, hundreds of prisoners and their visitors mingle, smoking drugs and urinating on the walls. The weapons are even more striking as they glisten in the dark through the clouds of cannabis.

Outside, on a small football pitch, one player goes in for tackles with a pistol in his hand.

More than 500 inmates were killed last year in Venezuela’s prisons. The same number were killed the previous year. At Uribana, the government says that it had attempted to confiscate weapons. A riot seems inevitable when the inmates have more firepower than authorities. At El Rodeo prison, in Caracas, it took 5,000 government troops a month to quell the violence that broke out in June 2011. At least 20 were killed.

The country’s worst prison incident took place in 1994, when 130 inmates were burned or hacked to death at a jail in the country’s western state of Zulia.

“We face a truly serious prison crisis in which the state has not shown up with solutions and this has led to chaos,” Carlos Nieto, a lawyer and university professor who runs a local prison watchdog, told me. “The conditions are deplorable, inhumane.”

Along with ease of access to weapons, drugs and alcohol is the severe overcrowding. The country's roughly 30 prisons house nearly 50,000 people, but were built for less than half that number.

As I left La Planta, going the other way were two young men, carrying duffel bags and — no matter what their crime — an innocence they will certainly lose in order to survive inside.

For World Report, this is Girish Gupta in Uribana, Venezuela