Venezuela prison crisis hits 4th week

| Friday, July 8th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

The Miami HeraldBY JIM WYSS

Rossy Vamontes is worried that her brother’s petty crime will turn into a death sentence.

For the last 24 days, Alejandro Vamontes has been one of more than 800 inmates trapped inside the notorious Rodeo II prison — with no electricity and little food and water.

The prisoners have refused to let guards in, saying they fear a repeat of an alleged massacre at the nearby Rodeo I prison. In response, The National Guard has laid siege — cutting off electricity and holding back supplies — as it accuses powerful mafias of keeping the majority of the prisoners hostage.

The standoff at Rodeo II was turning into a national embarrassment, as media outlets provided round-the-clock coverage and tallied the growing body count. But when President Hugo Chávez announced last week that he’d had a cancerous tumor removed in Cuba, the cameras fled.

“When the president got sick it was like somebody threw a blanket over all the country’s problems and now that’s all they talk about,” said Vamontes, who clutched a mobile phone, hoping to get a text message from her brother, who is awaiting trial for attempted robbery. “They’ve forgotten about us.”

The crisis began on June 17 when a deadly prison riot forced 5,000 National Guard officers to storm Rodeo I.

Authorities say they were met with gunfire but managed to subdue the population. The government claims 22 people died during the initial riot, but have provided few details about the takeover that left more than 20 National Guard officers injured and three killed.

Carlos Nieto Palma, head of the prison watchdog group Una Ventana a la Libertad, said he has documented 66 inmate deaths during the takeover of Rodeo I.

The government has called those figures exaggerated and is fining the opposition television station Globovision over its coverage of the crisis, which it called alarmist. Calls to the Ministry of Interior and Justice to get official figures were not returned.

“The media vultures are playing with the pain of mothers because they don’t care about the lives of those who are in jail,” Vice President Elías Jaua said in a news release.

When troops tried to move into nearby Rodeo II, inmates refused to let them in, fearing a repeat of the violence. Since then, both sides have dug in. The prisoners have told family members that they have enough weapons and ammunition to fight for months. The government’s strategy seems to be to starve them out.

Authorities say the stalemate is being forced by heavily armed gangs inside the prison. After forces raided Rodeo I, they found 40 firearms, including a submachine gun. They also found eight hand-grenades and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

Nieto, of the prison watchdog group, points out that the jails are guarded on the outside by the National Guard and on the inside by the Ministry of Interior. While some smuggling is inevitable, there’s no way the gangs could bring in shotguns and grenades without the guard’s knowledge.

“This is a monster that the government created and now it doesn’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Vamontes said her brother is willing to leave the prison, but can’t.

“It’s a lawless town in there and they basically have to do what they are told or get killed,” she said.

One of the most notorious gang leaders is known as “El Yofre.” In a telephone call from inside Rodeo II, a man claiming to be El Yofre accused the government and the families outside of spreading lies.

“Nobody is here against their will; We’re all united,” he told a family member of one of the prisoners. “Tell everyone out there to shut up, and we’ll resolve this either in the best of ways or the worst of ways.”

Henrique Capriles Radonski is the governor of the state of Miranda, where Rodeo I and II are located. He’s also a leading opposition candidate for the 2012 presidential elections.

He said the prison crisis is symbolic of an administration where all the power is tied up in one man — Chávez. And when his illness became the national priority, everything else stalled.

While the government has rolled out plans to “humanize” jails and overhaul the courts, little good has come of it, he said.

“This is a clear example that many things in our country have not changed,” Capriles said. “The rhetoric has changed, the words have changed — there’s a lot of talk but very little action.”

Venezuela has a wretched prison record. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has issued “provisional measures” against seven of Venezuela’s 33 prisons, including Rodeo II, citing the government for dangerous overcrowding and failing to set up controls to keep weapons and drugs out. A penal system designed for 14,000 inmates is crammed with almost 50,000. About 80 percent are awaiting trial.

Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the hemisphere. But being in jail is particularly deadly.

In 2010 there were 466 prison murders and almost 1,000 assaults, according to the IACHR. And more than 4,500 inmates have been killed in the last decade.

By comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported 15 homicides in 2010 — that in a prisoner population four-times larger than Venezuela’s.

No one’s sure what’s going on inside Rodeo II. Guards in riot gear keep food, family members and reporters far away. Early last week, a group of women tried to sneak around the guards to toss food over the wall. They were tear gassed, said Roxana Marcano, 48, whose son and nephew are in the prison.

On Thursday, there was some respite. The prisoners allowed 148 sick and injured inmates to leave and they turned over the corpse of a man who died of complications from diabetes. In exchange, the families were allowed to take in some food and water. But relatives and watchdog groups say the government is not doing enough.

“The government has to create a serious commission that will inspire confidence and resolve this issue,” said Marianela Sanchez, the judicial coordinator for the watchdog group Observatorio de Prisiones.

The Minister of Interior and Justice Tareck El Aissami told state-run media there have been “an infinite” number of talks and that the government’s top concern is the welfare of the prisoners.

But as Marcano bundled up bread and water that she hoped to ferry to her son and nephew, she said she and others are unaware of any kind of negotiation.

After Chávez led a failed coup in 1992, he was also a prisoner, Marcano said.

“He should understand how we’re feeling,” she said. “My son is not an animal. All we are looking for is a solution.”

 

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One Comment

  1. John Maynard says:

    Just for reference:

    “In 2010 there were 466 prison murders and almost 1,000 assaults, according to the IACHR. And more than 4,500 inmates have been killed in the last decade.

    By comparison, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported 15 homicides in 2010 — that in a prisoner population four-times larger than Venezuela’s.”

    According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, total jail and prison population in the US in 2009 was ca. 2.3 million, or more than 40 times (not four) that of Venezuela. Jail and prison population in the US is roughly .7% of total population, as against .18% in Venezuela. In 2007, about 80 jail and prison deaths were identified as murders (a much rarer cause than illness or suicide).

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