In a February 7 press conference, Venezuelan Head of Penitentiary Affairs, Iris Varela, stated that 106 firearms, over 8,500 rounds of ammunition and an unspecified amount of cocaine and marijuana were found at Uribana prison in Lara state, following a violent uprising in late January. In the riot that broke out during a prison inspection, at least 58 prisoners and one member of the National Guard were killed, under circumstances that have still not been clarified.
Among the weapons found were pistols, submachine guns, revolvers, grenades, and arms constructed in the jail, news agency EFE reported.
Days after the killings, Human Rights Watch called for investigations into the use of force by National Guard members during the confrontation.
According to the official version of events given by Varela nearly two weeks after the riot, guards were carrying out a routine inspection when prisoners indiscriminately attacked National Guard members and fellow prisoners. However, prisoners' relatives indicated that the National Guard incited the riot through violent tactics.
Varela has also blamed the press for the incident, saying it incited prisoners to violence prior to the inspection with language that implied there would be a “military takeover” of the prison.
The minister reconfirmed a death tally of 58, the same number the ministry initially provided, though other sources have placed the number at 61, and have claimed that 19 National Guard members were also killed, according to national newspaper El Universal. Varela did not comment on the condition of the 46 hospitalized prisoners.
InSight Crime Analysis
The discovery of such a large weapons and drug stash in Uribana, as well the high death toll of the riot, underlines the state's lack of control over the facility. While Varela insisted that progress was being made, the Uribana incident stands out as a particularly grisly example of the state's inability to improve conditions for inmates and professionalize the prison system.
Venezuela’s Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP), created in 2011 to reform the prison system, has yet to show a significant impact on violence levels. Between the ministry's creation and July 2012, over 500 prison deaths and nearly 2,000 injuries were reported, with 25 dying in an August prison riot near Caracas.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights blamed the government for the Uribana tragedy, with the commissioner’s spokesperson stating that, "It is a result of the alarming lack of services in Venezuelan prisons, the overcrowding of inmates, and the fact that many of the inmates endure pre-trial detention for a long time," reported El Universal.