Armed Gangs Battle for Control of Venezuela Prison

At least 25 people died in a clash in a Venezuelan jail in which heavily armed inmates threw grenades, bringing the death toll to well over 500 prisoners over the year since the government created a Prison Ministry to reform the system.

The fighting broke out on Sunday between two armed groups vying for control of Yare I prison near Caracas, Prison Minister Iris Varela told local press on Monday. One non-prisoner, a visiting family member, was also killed.

Some 25 bodies have been taken to the local morgue, some unrecognizable after being hit by grenades, reported El Universal.

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The Venezuelan government created the Ministry of Penitentiary Services (MPPSP) in July 2011 to address the crisis in the country’s prison system. Venezuelan prisons are far worse than their Latin American counterparts in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina which, like Venezuela, have seriously overcrowded jails but see far fewer deaths each year.

In the year following Varela’s announcement that she would take a “humanist” approach to reforming the prison system, introducing sports and culture programs, 523 inmates have died in Venezuelan jails, according to the NGOs Window to Freedom and the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP). More than 300 have died since January alone, the OVP announced — up 15 percent from the same period last year.

Varela pledged to construct prisons exclusively for those awaiting trial, but it became clear that this had not been implemented when 950 people occupied the Yare I and Yare II complexes in January to demand faster trials for their detained relatives.

Following the news of these latest deaths, the head of the OVP said that Varela had failed in her mission to reform the prison system, pointing out that Yare I was constructed for 750 inmates but currently has a population of 3,150, El Universal reported.