Weekly InSight: Latin America’s Prison Dilemma

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In our June 1 Facebook Live, co-directors Steven Dudley and Jeremy McDermott spoke about InSight Crime’s special investigation of prisons and their often overlooked impact on organized crime in the region.

The conversation opened with McDermott discussing the links between ongoing social unrest in Venezuela and its penitentiaries, as well as the extensive control “pranes” (jailhouse leaders) have over the country’s deteriorating prison system. Dudley pointed out that the government relies heavily on pran bosses to maintain their jails, a dynamic further illustrated in a recent interview with the country’s prison minister.

But Venezuela isn’t the only Latin American country where they saw this relationship between the state and its prisoners. In Guatemala, Byron Lima Oliva, a former army captain incarcerated after the country’s civil war, communicated with former interior minister Mauricio López Bonilla in an attempt to bring stability to the prisons, according to López Bonilla.

Dudley explained that by understanding the “hierarchy of needs” of prisoners, Lima was not only able to keep his fellow inmates in line, but also control the illicit economies of the eight prisons where he was housed in Guatemala. A similar black market phenomenon was also observed in Honduras’ notorious San Pedro Sula prison where businesses from restaurants to brothels were operating with the complicity of penitentiary officials.

McDermott and Dudley also talked about the similarities and differences between prison dynamics in the aforementioned countries and Colombia where “criminal enterprises have not traditionally been run from prison.” Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers struggle for power after dividing themselves into “pavilions,” McDermott explained. In El Salvador, on the other hand, MS13 and Barrio 18 gang leaders rule from the penitentiaries and often rotate with gang leaders on the outside, or what is known as “la libre.”

The co-directors also discussed how Latin America’s prisons have led to the evolution of organized crime. In El Salvador, the prison-based maras have become more politically active after the controversial 2012 gang truce, says McDermott. Further south in Venezuela, the pranes have “exported” their model of control to the outside in the form of “megabandas,” large criminal organizations that present a serious threat to public security.

Watch the Facebook Live broadcast for the full conversation:

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