Venezuela’s Top Prison Official Out, But Permissive Policy Still In

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Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro announced the replacement of Prison Minister Iris Varela, but her policies that allowed criminal networks to flourish inside the country’s jails seem destined to continue.

Mirelys Contreras Moreno was designated what is known as the Minister of Popular Power for the Penitentiary Service (Ministerio del Poder Popular para el Servicio Penitenciario), according to a June 15 press release. She will replace Varela, who is stepping down to participate in July’s Constituent Assembly as a deputy.

Varela is emblematic of the government’s prison policy. The official headed the current ministry since its creation in July 2011, and was the only minister left in Maduro’s cabinet to have taken office under Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.

Varela developed close ties with Venezuela’s prison bosses dubbed “pranes” and admitted giving permission for prisoners to handle riots themselves. After six years under her management, Venezuela’s penitentiary remains out of government control, as evidenced by recurring deadly riots and discoveries of mass graves.

Contreras, who has also been with the ministry since its creation, was until now vice minister for the Assistance to Prisoners (Viceministra de Atención al Privado y Privada de Libertad), a technical division of the Prison Ministry, according to the ministry’s organizational chart.

InSight Crime Analysis

The likelihood that Varela’s departure signals a change of policy is thin. Since a brutal month-long prison riot that led to the creation of the current ministry in 2011, Venezuela’s prison policy has essentially been to let prisoners control the penitentiaries themselves.

This policy has opened the door to illicit markets that the pranes have monopolized. The near-complete absence of state control also paved the way for the pranes to extend outside of prisons, where they are forming so-called “megabandas.”

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Prisons

Carlos Nieto Palma, the director of the non-profit Window To Freedom (Ventana A La Libertad) said the new minister will follow the lead of the outgoing one.

“I don’t think there will be any change. The new minister was vice minister for the Assistance to Prisoners and was very close to Varela. I think that the same policy will be maintained. And I actually think that Varela will still be calling the shots through her [Contreras],” Nieto told Insight Crime.

“Remember that Varela left for the Constituent Assembly. That is the only reason for her departure,” Nieto added.

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