President Nicolás Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro announced the replacement of Prison Minister Iris Varela, but her policies that allowed criminal networks to flourish inside the country's jails seem destined to continue.

Mirelys Contreras Moreno was designated what is known as the Minister of Popular Power for the Penitentiary Service (Ministerio del Poder Popular para el Servicio Penitenciario), according to a June 15 press release. She will replace Varela, who is stepping down to participate in July's Constituent Assembly as a deputy.

Varela is emblematic of the government's prison policy. The official headed the current ministry since its creation in July 2011, and was the only minister left in Maduro's cabinet to have taken office under Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.

Varela developed close ties with Venezuela's prison bosses dubbed "pranes" and admitted giving permission for prisoners to handle riots themselves. After six years under her management, Venezuela's penitentiary remains out of government control, as evidenced by recurring deadly riots and discoveries of mass graves.

Contreras, who has also been with the ministry since its creation, was until now vice minister for the Assistance to Prisoners (Viceministra de Atención al Privado y Privada de Libertad), a technical division of the Prison Ministry, according to the ministry's organizational chart.

InSight Crime Analysis

The likelihood that Varela's departure signals a change of policy is thin. Since a brutal month-long prison riot that led to the creation of the current ministry in 2011, Venezuela's prison policy has essentially been to let prisoners control the penitentiaries themselves.

This policy has opened the door to illicit markets that the pranes have monopolized. The near-complete absence of state control also paved the way for the pranes to extend outside of prisons, where they are forming so-called "megabandas."

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

Carlos Nieto Palma, the director of the non-profit Window To Freedom (Ventana A La Libertad) said the new minister will follow the lead of the outgoing one.

"I don't think there will be any change. The new minister was vice minister for the Assistance to Prisoners and was very close to Varela. I think that the same policy will be maintained. And I actually think that Varela will still be calling the shots through her [Contreras]," Nieto told Insight Crime.

"Remember that Varela left for the Constituent Assembly. That is the only reason for her departure," Nieto added.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...