BOGOTA, Colombia—Twenty-nine inmates were killed and 19 policemen were injured May 24 at a police detention site in the state of Portuguesa, Venezuela, in an armed conflict attributed to gangs that operate with government support.
The region’s security secretary, Oscar Valero, said the violence was the result of inter-gang conflict as police tried to control a “mass escape attempt.”
NGOs monitoring the country’s prisons, however, say it was the result of one-sided clashes between a special response unit sent in to quash a mutiny, and “pranes”—armed criminal gangs who run drug and extortion rackets from inside Venezuela’s prisons.
The gangs operate with support from the police and are sometimes associated with colectivos—armed paramilitary groups loyal to Venezuelan regime leader Nicolás Maduro—who run entire neighborhoods and quash public protests through violence and intimidation.
The NGOs say Venezuela’s justice and prison ministries should be held accountable for the disaster.
“The state always has an excuse but who gets the arms inside?” said Humberto Prado, director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory. “The state must answer to the families of the victims because they were killed under their watch.”
It’s the latest mass killing in the country’s penitentiary system, following a fire during a police jail riot in the city of Valencia in 2018 that killed 68, and riots at a similar facility in the state of Amazonas in 2017, which left 37 dead.
The incident was sparked on the evening of May 23, when the criminal gang operating within a police cellblock in the town of Acarigua kidnapped two women visiting the prison and held them for ransom. A video shared on social media shows the gang’s leader, his face partially obscured by a bandana, demanding changes to prison regulations and waving a handgun and two grenades while his distressed victims plead for dialogue.
NGOs and activists allege that when the special response unit arrived to resolve the disturbances on May 24, they engaged in a shootout with the pranes, leaving almost 30 inmates dead. They believe one of the pranes’ grenades was seized by security forces and used against the inmates, causing most of the casualties.
Images shared with The Epoch Times show rows of naked corpses lined up in the prison yard and piled on top of each other in squalid prison cells.
The massacre is one in a series of mass killings caused by disturbances in Venezuela’s overcrowded prisons in recent years, as its penitentiary system, consistently denounced by human rights groups, has fallen into further demise because of the country’s economic and political collapse.
Under Maduro, a free-falling economy, rolling blackouts, water, and basic goods shortages—alongside a boom in crime—have caused 3.4 million people to flee the country.
Between 1999—when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez was elected—and 2014, 6,470 murders were registered by the country’s prison system. The ministry in charge of prisons no longer releases statistics, but organizations monitoring the penitentiary system say killings are becoming more common as prison overcrowding increases and the gangs operating them gain power.
Over half of Venezuela’s 105,000 inmates are currently held in more than 500 inadequate pre-detention centers and some are stuck there for up to five years as a failing judicial system doesn’t sentence them, he says.
“Inmates are killed not only by police, but as they do not have food or are not treated for illnesses,” said Carlos Nieto, director of A Window to Freedom, a nonprofit monitoring conditions in Venezuela’s jails. The facility in Acarigua has a capacity of 60, but Nieto says it held 542 inmates at the time of the clashes.
As the Venezuelan state has weakened it has devolved further power to armed groups such as colectivos to maintain control of the country. This phenomenon is particularly acute within prisons, says Keymer Ávila, a criminology professor at the Central University of Venezuela’s Institute of Penal Sciences.
“There is a form of withdrawal from the state to give the functions of the government over to inmate leaders,” Ávila says. “Given the lack of institutionality and formal and legal interventions that impose limits, only the rule of force is applied.”
Owing to the large illicit market that operating the country’s prisons has become, and the growing power of the pranes, observers expect more such killings to follow.
“Sadly it’s a situation that will continue happening all the while the Venezuelan authorities do not call for order and take responsibility for the serious situation that is the penitentiary system in Venezuela,” Nieto said.