Overcrowded, Too Few Guards and Easy Access to Drugs in Paraguay’s Most Crowded Prison

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The June 2019 massacre of 10 Rotela Clan members by First Capital Command (Primer Comando da Capital – PCC) inmates at the San Pedro prison in Paraguay sheds light on the critical situation in which the South American country’s penitentiary system currently finds itself.

Prior to his resignation in late October, InSight Crime spoke to Jorge Fernández while he was still director of Tacumbú prison, Paraguay’s most populated, overcrowded and understaffed jail where Rotela Clan and PCC members coexist.

Despite Fernández’s claims of peace in the prison, shortly after his resignation, the nephew of Rotela Clan leader Javier Armando Rotela was murdered in Tacumbú on November 1.

InSight Crime (IC): What is your day-to-day like in the prison?

Jorge Fernández (JF): The day-to-day here is never the same. A problem could arise at any moment, of any nature, due to the overpopulation. The place is designed for 1,500 inmates and there are almost 4,000 inmates.

IC: How many prison guards are there?

JF: Ideally there should be 100 guards on each shift. We currently have between 40 and 43 per shift, and this number is actually halved because one group works while the other rests. Therefore, at a certain point during the night and at dawn, there are between 20 and 22 guards for the 4,000 inmates.

There are three shifts every 24 hours. The guards basically do not rest, it is very difficult. There are sectors where two guards are assigned for 700 inmates. In other words, the only thing they can do at any given moment is close the gate and run, because what else are they going to do?

IC: How is the prison divided?

JF: This prison is very atypical, because there are wings here which can hold 50 inmates in the same location, sleeping in double and triple bunks, all watched by cameras. Also, convicted felons and inmates still awaiting trial are mixed together. There is no way to divide the different sectors, separate them and say, “here are just murderers, here are just rapists,” no, they are all together.

Of the 4,000, we only have 956 convicted felons, the rest are all awaiting trial. Then we have Christian wings, which really work well, but those are also overpopulated.

IC: What are these “Christian wings?”

JF: We have three Christian wings that spread “the word of God.” There are Adventists and Catholics. To enter, you have to follow their rules. When a prisoner wants to live there, the pastor in charge reads them the rules, and they must accept them. And if they violate the rules, they can throw you out. Here everything is done is a specific way, prayer and mealtimes are at specific hours. Their rules are very clear.

But essentially, all the wings here are peaceful. Inmates live and eat well here as food is a priority. When we took over here, we audited management because the inmates were not eating well and this led to inmate uprisings.

SEE ALSO: Paraguay News and Profile

IC: How do you view this job?

JF: There is no place to study to be the director of a prison in Paraguay, you have to learn as you go. The inmates, as long as they behave well, are never going to have problems with me. If they do misbehave, I can yell at them or put them in solitary confinement. I only have to sign a paper for them to be transferred away from here.

IC: So when you transfer an inmate, is it because they’ve misbehaved?

JF: Of course. The problem we have here is with the “pasilleros,” those inmates that enter and leave frequently for minor crimes. They are usually drug addicts, who rob in order to buy drugs. There are almost 1,000 inmates here under this category.

There is no addiction treatment center here, these centers desperately need to be created so those who rob to be able to buy drugs can go elsewhere. But they become criminals because of their drug addiction, they steal and end up here and the situation gets worse.

IC: But once they are in prison, they will still try to buy drugs? How do they do that?

JF: They can find items to sell or they can work in the prison, doing cleaning or other tasks. Here, they need less than a dollar to buy drugs. They only need 500 guaraníes [around $0.07] to buy enough crack to last a whole day.

IC: Is crack the most used drug inside the prison?

JF: We have found marijuana, cocaine and crack. Controls are currently being stepped up, but we don’t have the necessary infrastructure to confront the whole situation. We now have a new administration that is looking at a way to obtain the necessary technology to detect drugs. We do not have a scanner for the men’s wings, we only have a working scanner for the women’s wing.

The scanners could be used to see inside bags, to see if there is anything there. Right now, it’s a lot of effort. Paraguay allows four weekly visits to prisons on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. On a Tuesday or Thursday, 850-900 people enter but that climbs up to 2,000 on Saturday or Sunday. So [with inmates plus visitors], there are between 6,000 and 7,000 people here on weekends.

SEE ALSO: Deadly Riot Shows Paraguay Prisons Unprepared for PCC Onslaught

IC: With so many weekly visits, this must mean a large quantity of contraband can enter?

JF: An inmate can receive food from their family until 7 pm. They can bring them pizza or meat, the food is inspected and then handed over to the inmate. But on visit days, families even use children to bring in drugs. What worries me more is weapons, our current means of control [physically checking visitors one by one] requires a lot of effort. There is no scanner, so they will manage to bring contraband in one way or another.

We make constant inspections [inside the prison] and we mostly find homemade knives. Alcohol and drugs are usually caught at the entrance. But we know that some guards are involved in this system as well.

IC: What strategies do you have to address this?

JF: Having the necessary technology would make it easier. We only have one entrance and exit here, so it is not complicated. But, for example, I asked the SENAD (National Anti-drug Secretariat) for help with anti-drug police dogs, but they are also worn out from work and can only come once a week.

We were told that there is no proper training provided for the prison guards?

JF: No, the majority of the staff have been here for between 20 and 25 years. They simply came in with their identification, their military service record and birth certificate. These are the three requirements because this prison used to have only 700 inmates, all convicted prisoners. Now, it has evolved to what is it today, the prison has two avenues, it even has permanent settlements outside where people sell drugs. This is not normal, the prison is like a mini-city.

IC: It must be a very unusual prison. 

JF: Yes. It is like a marketplace, there are people who work honestly selling food or running bars, for example. That is allowed. An inmate with money can buy his food. If not, we prepare food in a renovated kitchen which is first-rate.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

The area where guards sleep has also been fixed up. It used to be a pigsty, the roof was collapsing and leaking. There was an order from the president to make prisons livable, we have done what we could with the money available.

I manage the medicine personally, they are stored in my office, or they will end up on the black market.

IC: How many inmates have died this year?

JF: Around 15 to 18. More than half were due to natural causes and the others died in fights. But the prisoners remain quiet, they never say who was to blame or that it was a fight.

IC: Why do the fights happen?

JF: Most often, it’s about debts to be paid. But there have been some isolated cases related to clans which did not get along with the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). The massacre in San Pedro was large because there were two big groups [of Clan Rotela and PCC inmates]. Here, we are managing the situation. Most of the inmates work, they understand that a problem affects everyone and it is not in anyone’s interest.

I have told them that, in case of a big problem [like a riot], the army will come in. I tell them to use their heads, I am always talking with them, asserting control, I walk around the prison to ensure they behave. By talking with them, I can understand the things they need.

IC: Are there members of the PCC and the Rotela Clan here?

JF: Yes, but they are separated, identified and communicate.

IC: They speak? 

JF: Yes, there is dialogue up to a certain point. If they have problems, we organize a meeting between the two leaders and we participate in the meeting. We ask what the problem is and try and find a solution. They know that it is not in their interest to kill each other.

IC: How do other inmates view these more organized groups? Do they get involved?

D: No one gets involved, to each their own. When they want to cross the line, we set up meetings and that’s it.

IC: Can you provide an example of problems that were resolved diplomatically?

JF: I once received information that there was going to be an attack from the prisoners of one wing on those of another. I cannot tell you who the gangs involved were, but they were going to attack one another. So, we called the leaders and we made them talk it out with my security chief and I.

IC: Was this before or after the San Pedro massacre?

JF: It was after the San Pedro massacre. We understood that the problem had started due to gossip spread by a gang member. One piece of information had been exaggerated. It ended, they hugged, and we made them pass the word around.

*The interview transcript was edited for greater clarity and brevity. 

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