Prison Standoffs Spiral Across Venezuela

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The taking of at least eight police hostage in a jail in western Venezuela is the sixth incident in which a detention center has experienced a standoff since the new year.

Six inmates died during the confrontation in the police lockup in San Cristobal, a city in the border state of Tachira. Eight police were taken hostage when the brawl broke out on Monday, but half were released that night and the final hostages were released Tuesday, according to El Universal.

This is the sixth detention center to have witnessed an outbreak of violence so far in 2011. Crises are also playing out in five other facilities across the country, El Universal reports.

InSight Crime Analysis

At least two of these ongoing cases appear to be connected. The first serious crisis involved families of inmates who took over the Yare I and Yare II facilities just south of Caracas to demanding improved conditions. Shortly afterwards, inmates from three other prisons, Los Teques, Coro and Rodeo I, called a hunger strike, which they said was to show solidarity for those in the Yare complex.

The crisis at the San Cristobal lockup appears to have been triggered by a different set of circumstances. Corrupt police apparently smuggled three guns into the facility, which one group of inmates used to attack another group. In a video interview (see below), Army General Hector Coronado said that the fight was possibly intended to avenge another gang brawl which broke out in November 2011.

According to El Universal, a gang known as the Toyoteros, whose members are being held in the San Cristobal lockup, are using the hostage incident to demand that they be transferred out of the area. The Toyoteros, a group that mostly subsists of car and truck robberies along the Venezuela-Colombia border, are best known for stealing the state governor’s car in 2011.

All this suggests that while the prison standoffs ongoing elsewhere in Venezuela are apparently driven by demands for improved humanitarian conditions, the San Cristobal incident may have been triggered by gang conflicts.

Nevertheless, the lockup is an example of the overstretching of resources in Venezuela’s penal system. According to the Coronado, it is only designed to hold people for 48 hours but in some cases has held prisoners for more than two years.

Venezuela’s penitentiaries are meant to hold just 16,909 people, although the actual prison population is over 43,000, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.

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