Hostage Situation Mark of Venezuela Prison Chaos

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The ongoing hostage situation in a Venezuelan jail highlights the country’s chaotic penitentiary system, demonstrating how inmates not only control prisons but also have become practiced at pressuring government officials to accede to their demands.

On September 8, inmates at a police station in the Venezuelan state of Táchira took hostage 12 people — 10 visiting family members and two police officers — to protest jail conditions and demand transfers to the Tocorón penitentiary in Aragua state, reported El Universal.

The Táchira jail was originally intended as a temporary holding center, where detainees would spend no more than 48 hours. According to RunRun, it is at 292 percent capacity, housing 350 inmates despite only having a capacity of 120.

Currently, 11 individuals remain captive, with inmates releasing a pregnant woman a week after the initial abduction. The prisoners leading the hostage situation have been communicating with the outside world via video message.

On September 26, inmates released a video and pictures of a fellow prisoner, identified as a Colombian paramilitary boss nicknamed “Comandante 33,” having his finger cut off. The man appeared to have been beaten and tortured, and had allegedly failed to pay extortion fees to the prison’s inmate leadership. The video was intended to pressure officials to meet the inmates’ prison transfer demands in order to prevent the hostages suffering a similar fate, Sumarium reported.  

On September 28, Táchira state’s Citizen Security Commissioner, Ramón Cabeza Ibarra, assured that all the hostages were in good health and had not been mistreated, but added that no police had entered the jail. That same day, members of the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Committee for the Penitentiary System (Comisión Permanente de Cultos y Régimen Penitenciario) discussed solutions to the hostage crisis, with the committee’s leader, Richard Blanco, offering to act as intermediary and negotiator.

Venezuelan Ombudsman Tareck William Saab acknowledged poor jail conditions throughout the country and said his office is also working to resolve the situation in Táchira.

InSight Crime Analysis

The hostage situation in Táchira is yet another indication of Venezuela’s chaotic penitentiary system. Prisoners openly control most prisons in the country, with inmate leaders, known as “pranes,” running the day-to-day activities of life behind bars.

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Prisons

This lack of state presence within prison walls has given rise to thriving underground economies. For instance, in the San Antonio prison on Margarita Island, inmates even opened a nightclub, using smart phones to coordinate events and invite friends and family. At the Tocorón prison in Aragua — where the Táchira prisoners wish to be transferred — inmates have set up a marketplace where even local residents go to do their grocery shopping — the prison also reportedly has a nightclub, swimming pool, and prisoner “bank.”

The tactic of kidnapping prison employees and relatives to protest living conditions and secure concessions from prison officials has also become commonplace among Venezuelan inmates –in some instances, family members of inmates are willing participants. For instance, inmates at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela recently kidnapped 23 prison employees, ultimately forcing the government to transfer over 2,500 detainees to their prison so inmate leaders could collect extortion payments from them. 

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