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This year, InSight Crime put a special focus on how prisons in Latin America interact with organized crime, examining how institutions meant to contain or reform criminals have actually become operational centers for many of the region’s most powerful and dangerous criminal groups.

In a six-part investigative series — using case studies from Venezuela, Colombia and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — we explored how prisons have become a “prime incubator for organized crime” in Latin America.  

The findings of that exhaustive project helped to inform our InDepth coverage of prisons and organized crime in other countries throughout the region, many of which continue to struggle with issues of overcrowding, lack of resources, corruption and criminal control.  

As part of our stepped-up coverage of prisons, we also looked at the growing recognition of the need for reforms to penitentiary systems across Latin America. Although progress has been slow and concrete successes few, countries are starting to take steps toward addressing longstanding problems in what we called “the most neglected part of the judicial chain.”

The ‘Prison Dilemma’

As insecurity in the region has worsened in recent years, the use of heavy-handed security policies has increased. This in turn has inflated the region’s prison population. The amount of facilities to accommodate the influx of inmates has failed to keep pace. Spiking prison populations have left authorities hamstrung, allowing criminal groups to become de facto rulers and to exert a sort of controlled chaos.

What this created was fertile ground for sophisticated criminal gangs to hone their skills and prey on those incarcerated — often without conviction — as new recruits, customers for illicit businesses, or victims of extortion and other crimes.

To make matters worse, the region’s prisons have been severely neglected, leading to deplorable living conditions that criminal groups have used as a rallying point in order to further increase their influence. Surviving these conditions requires “discipline and a clear chain of command,” something criminal groups running the prisons provide in the absence of government control.

This imbalance has given way to the reign of infamous figures like Captain Byron Lima Oliva, whom we profiled in our January investigation. The former Guatemalan Army officer turned prisoner, we wrote, “imposed his rule inside the jails before being swallowed by the system he once benefitted from.”

“In every Guatemalan jail, there is a Byron Lima,” Luis Lima told InSight Crime shortly before his brother’s death in July 2016. “But there are good Byron Limas and bad Byron Limas. There’s the Byron Lima that helps with the prison’s healthcare system, with the prison’s education system, with the prison’s work programs. And there’s the bad Byron Lima who can extort, who can beat people up, who promotes vice.”

Prisons in the Spotlight

The security consequences of poor prison conditions have been particularly evident in El Salvador, where the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs — which the government has classified as terrorist groups — exert total control over the country’s penitentiaries.

“For the last decade, the penitentiary system in El Salvador has been the headquarters of the MS13 and the Barrio 18, the largest gangs in the country,” we noted in our February investigation. “The gangs’ takeover of the prisons resulted from a combination of bad public policy, and the gangs’ increasing organizational skill and guile.”

In February, Salvadoran authorities extended “extraordinary measures” aimed at cracking down on gang activities in the prisons, and announced a mass transfer of prisoners with the same goal. However, reports emerged later in the year indicating that prison officials had worked to strengthen a dissident faction of the MS13, suggesting gangs still exert substantial control behind bars.

Our investigation of Venezuela’s prison system, published in September, highlighted the perils of governments surrendering control to gangs. In an effort to ensure that prison violence wouldn’t spill over onto the streets, Venezuela’s first prison Minister Iris Valera resorted to her own brand of extraordinary measures.

“She simply befriended the most important pranes [gang leaders] and started making deals with them,” we noted. “What they wanted, and got, was power within prison walls. They achieved control of everything that happened inside. In return, nothing was to spill over the walls and into the media. It was a Pax Mafiosa.”

But these decisions have had profound consequences.

“This gave birth to a new generation of organized crime structures, and the pranes, the trains and megabandas now have reach across the country pushing up criminality and murder,” we wrote. “All of this has helped turn Venezuela into one of the most dangerous nations on earth.”

Several incidents in prisons in Mexico also brought the negative impacts of criminal control into focus this year. Organized crime groups in Mexico are estimated to control 65 percent of state prisons, which has facilitated inmate-thrown parties and barbaric acts of violence. In an especially illustrative incident we reported on in October, a crime group was able to free two of its members after kidnapping the director of the prison where they were held, along with his son.

And in Brazil, crime groups have reportedly organized attacks on government officials from behind prison walls, and also used brutal prison riots and sophisticated tunnel systems to escape them.

Growing Momentum for Reform

The extent of criminal control and lack of government oversight over prisons stretches across the region, contributing to the persistence and growth of some of Latin America’s most powerful and dangerous crime groups.

Steps have been made towards rehabilitating the region’s penitentiary systems. But despite a growing recognition that the repressive policies of the past have largely proven ineffective, like a lot of security policy initiatives in the region, progress toward reform has been slow going.

In October, authorities in Honduras closed the San Pedro Sula prison, a criminal hub at all levels, shortly after opening a new maximum security prison as part of a broader effort to overhaul the country’s notoriously troubled correctional system.

In Panama and Costa Rica, authorities are starting to prioritize “innovative models for prison management that are less punitive and that focus more on adhering to human rights standards and resocializing inmates.” In one Panamanian prison, inmates are being assigned to different development programs after their risk levels and needs are assessed in order to focus on constructive activities.

And as we reported in May, authorities in Argentina are expanding a program aimed at providing treatment rather than mandating incarceration for small-scale drug crimes. Although they hope the initiative will reduce prison overcrowding, officials have said “implementation could prove difficult” because “the general population is likely to be resistant to these types of legal changes.” 

These are small, but important steps. At the same time, past prison reform proposals in Latin America have received overwhelming support from policymakers without leading to any concrete improvements. The future of Latin America’s prison systems rests largely on whether the current momentum for reform continues to build, or whether it fades in the face of strong political forces favoring the status quo.

Top photo by Associated Press/Oliver de Ros

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