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Wounded prisoners are evacuated from the prison

Sixty one prisoners have been killed and up to 120 wounded during a riot at Uribana jail in the western Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, cementing Venezuela's reputation of having the most dangerous prison system in the world.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, which occurred on January 25, Iris Varela, the minister for penitentiary affairs, announced that the prison would be evacuated. The remains of the prison population, which had totaled around 2,500 prisoners before the riot, were being moved and spread among 19 other jails. The beleaguered Minister Varela, appointed in July 2011, had blamed media reports for setting off the riot in a vain and incomprehensible attempt to divert blame.

A local hospital said that nearly all the killings and injuries were the result of gunshots, suggesting that either the prisoners had access to guns, or that troops were responsible for the majority of deaths. Minister Varela denied this, insisting that most of the prisoners had died of knife wounds. The minister stated that all the deaths were the result of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, and that there had not been clashes between prisoners and the National Guard. However, hospital authorities reported at least one member of the National Guard among the dead.

There is no clear understanding of what started the riot. The newspaper El Nacional stated that prison services had negotiated the right to search the prison with one of the "pranes," or prison bosses who run the jail, but that when the search began prisoners refused to cooperate. Relatives of the prisoners stated that the riot began after members of the National Guard forced prisoners to their knees, and then humiliated and beat them, using "excessive and brutal force."

InSight Crime Analysis

Venezuela has the most dangerous, and one of the most brutal, prison systems in the world. The jails are also centers for organized crime, run by the pranes. Criminal enterprises operate within the prison walls, among them extortion and kidnapping rings and even assassination services. Overcrowding is the norm, and authorities usually have to ask permission of the pranes to enter prison blocks. According to the Venezuelan Prisons Obervatory (OVP), pranes run 28 out of the country's 34 prisons.

From July 2011 (when the Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP) was created) to July 2012, more than 500 inmates were murdered and up to 2000 wounded.

The vice president, Nicolas Maduro, who is governing Venezuela while Hugo Chavez lies in a hospital bed in Cuba, supposedly recovering after surgery to remove cancer in his body, admitted that they had lost control of prisons, but there was a plan to retake control.

"This plan is specifically designed to retake control ... so that jails and prisons are not ruled by violence, mafias, drugs and death," said Maduro. "It's an evil that is there and which we have not resolved."

This riot and the ensuing violence was not an isolated incident.  In August last year 27 people died in fighting in Yare 1 penitentiary near the capital Caracas. This violence was the result of two armed groups of prisoners vying for control of the jail and the lucrative illegal earnings to be gained from controlling the entry of drugs, the distribution of cells and beds, and the variety of other services that prisoners have to pay the pranes for. In La Planta prison which was shut down in May last year, the illegal economy was estimated to be worth up to $4 million a year.

The chaos within Venezuela's prison system is reflected outside of the prison walls as well. The lack of coherent security policy, and corruption in the police, armed forces and judicial system, have seen Venezuela turn into the most dangerous nation in South America. Estimates put the homicide rate in Venezuelan at 73 per 100,000 of the population, with the murder rate in Caracas as high as 122 per 100,000.  While these figures are disputed, it is likely that only Honduras has higher levels of violence in the Western Hemisphere. And as long as Venezuela continues without effective leadership, as rumors continue to swirl around the health of President Chavez, the situation is likely to continue deteriorating.

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