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Venezuela

Video: How armed inmates sow terror in Venezuela's prisons

Text by: Maëva Poulet
7 min

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A group of armed inmates shoot into the air from the roof of a prison while their guards are nowhere to be seen. The scene might sound improbable, but it recently took place in Venezuela, a country where prisons are almost entirely under the control of gangs.

On Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela, inmates at San Antonio prison have it good. In this detention facility, guns, swimming pools, and even nightclubs are available for those doing time.

Several videos showing their improvised shooting session have been published on Venezuelan social media networks. For the prisoners, it was their way of paying homage to their boss, El Conejo, a former inmate who died on Sunday, January 24.

Our Observer Nemesis (not his real name) lives on the island.

"It's pure madness!"

What happened was pure madness! On Sunday evening, gang leader Teofilo Cazorla, who went by the name 'El Conejo', ["the rabbit"] was killed in Polomar, a town on Margarita Island. According to the media, he was leaving a nightclub when he was killed. It must've been a settling of scores.

He had been released from prison last year. But according to some of the rumours flying around, he didn't want to leave because he felt safer behind bars. He controlled a series of organised trafficking rings from inside the prison. Everyone on the island knew who he was. They knew that he belonged to a network of drug traffickers.

A friend of mine was passing by in his car when they started firing from the rooftop. He was terrified.

"That's what happens in San Antonio prison on Margarita Island: Prisoners fire in the air with weapons of war"

"The police? We get the impression that they're complicit"

These days, everyone in the town is frightened. It's pure anarchy here – gangs rule everything. On Tuesday, during El Conejo's funeral, the island's main thoroughfare was blocked throughout the afternoon. Gang members from outside the prison organised a kind of huge funeral procession through the streets.

Photo showing the island's main road, blocked by the burial procession of El Conejo. Photo sent by our Observer.

But no one said anything. People here are too scared to stand up to the gangs. The police don't do much either. We even get the impression that they're complicit.

On top of that, there are strange links between the penitentiary service and El Conejo. After the video showing inmates firing from the prison rooftop was posted online, lots of Internet users shared a photo of the Minister for Prisons, Maria Iris Varela, with the gang leader, to show that the two were close. It was apparently taken in his prison cell, when he was still an inmate at San Antonio.

"So this is the Minister's work?"

"These thugs know that the Minister is their ally"

"This incident is nothing surprising: We've already seen several videos showing armed inmates"

Carlos Nieto Palma is the head of the NGO 'Una Ventana para la Libertad' [ ‘A window for freedom’]. The organisation has been calling for a major reform of the country's prison system for several years. After the latest videos surfaced, the NGO called on Venezuela's Minister for Prisons to step down.

The scene that we're seeing in the video is not at all surprising. We've already seen videos showing armed inmates. What's new is that now they've got high quality mobile phones that they can use to film and share the footage in real time. Nearly all the videos that have appeared on social media networks were taken by prisoners.

In Venezuela, people were already scared of living next to prisons. Now, with these videos, prisoners are spreading a reign of terror.

"They couldn't have got hold of these weapons without the help of the National Guard"

Certain weapons that we can see in the video are military-grade. They could only have gotten their hands on them with the help of the National Guard, a branch of the country's armed forces.

Around the prisons, there are two levels of surveillance. Outside, there's the National Guard. Inside, guards working for the penitentiary service are responsible for watching over the inmates. If weapons are getting into the prison, that means that there's corruption going on at both levels.

With those kinds of weapons, the prisoners could easily escape. But they stay in the prison because they're safer there. It's a strategic place, and gangs regularly fight between themselves for control of the prison.

Several trafficking rings are run from inside the prison walls: they sell everything from drugs to phones and computers. What's happening right now in San Antonio is just the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of a huge mafia network that exists inside prisons and in certain neighbourhoods.

According to the latest report from Amnesty International, 150 inmates were killed in Venezuelan prisons in 2014. Despite that, last November the Minister for Prisons claimed that there were no weapons inside the country's detention facilities and that the rate of prison violence was falling.

Following the video's publication, on Tuesday lawmakers at National Assembly announced that they would create a commission to investigate wrongdoing at San Antonio prison.

"Today, a proposal to investigate what's happening inside San Antonio prison was approved unanimously"

Tensions have been rising since the country's opposition swept to victory in December's legislative elections, putting Nicolas Maduro's socialist government at a political impasse. On Wednesday, January 27, four artisanal bombs exploded in the capital Caracas, close to the building that houses the National Assembly. The head of the parliamentary opposition, Julio Borges, claims that these bombs were placed by people "close to the government" to spread panic and "avoid debates on important issues" facing the country.

While Venezuela's political crisis drags on, the country's economy is falling apart. Millions of ordinary Venezuelans have found themselves having to deal with serious food shortages as well as rampant inflation.

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