Date: Wed, 20 Nov 96 11:22:12 CST
From: rich%pencil@cmsa.Berkeley.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: NACLA: Venezuela's Prison Crisis
Article: 1048

/** 302.0 **/
** Topic: Venezuela's Prison Crisis by Mark Ungar: Sept/Oct 1996 **
** Written 12:58 PM Nov 6, 1996 by nacla in **

Venezuela's Explosive Penitentiary Crisis

By Mark Ungar, NACLA Report on the Americas, Sept/Oct 1996

In the aftermath of a violent riot in Maracaibo National Prison in western Venezuela in January, 1994, prison officials nonchalantly told the press that they had no accurate body count because they could not identify all the body parts. The violence erupted after inmates threw fire-bombs into cellblocks housing rival gangs, triggering clashes in which approximately 150 prisoners were stabbed, shot, drowned, decapitated and burned to death. Although this riot was unusually bloody, its causes and consequences were anything but unusual. Packed in a facility built for 800, most of Maracaibo's 2,500 inmates were heavily armed and unpatrolled. Once the dust settled, however, the Venezuelan government did not investigate the lack of personnel or even the source of the fire-bombs. It instead blamed a handful of inmates for engineering the violence and duly shipped them off to a penal colony on the other side of the country. Maracaibo continued in much the same state as before.

Unprecedented levels of prison mayhem—including killings, riots and mass breakouts—have shaken several Latin American countries in the past few years. Besieged by rising crime rates, yet unwilling to confront difficult policy choices, governments throughout Latin America have been busily shoving their undesirables behind prison walls. As a result, even greater levels of violence and instability have come bursting back out through those walls.

Last April, for example, a botched escape at Argentina's Sierra Chica prison in Buenos Aires province sparked a mutiny by 1,000 inmates. Their revolt against atrocious living conditions and long delays in the trial process quickly spread to 18 other prisons across the country. Using large stashes of weapons, the prisoners took hostages and managed to gain control over five prisons. When the riots ended after a negotiated settlement, the worst prison crisis in Argentine history had left 21 dead and 35 wounded.

Prison escapes have also captured headlines recently in Brazil, where 130,000 prisoners are squeezed into facilities meant to hold less than half that number. At the Aparecida de Goias prison near Brasilia, 40 inmates took dozens of officials hostage in April and then escaped. In press interviews before their recapture, the prisoners complained of inhuman conditions and unbearable overcrowding. The following month, 53 inmates escaped from Carandiru, the country's largest prison, by digging a 100-yard tunnel.

The brutal conditions that have triggered such violent outbursts and risky escape attempts seem to be a throwback to the military regimes of the past. Yet inhumane prisons survived the region's transition to democracy intact. Today, the virtual breakdown of penitentiary systems throughout the region exposes the fault lines of contemporary Latin American democracy. The prisons of Venezuela—one of Latin America's longest-standing democracies—offer a dramatic example of how quickly constitutional principles can buckle under the weight of bureaucracy, political expediency, and socio-economic insecurity. Ineffective leaders, a restless military, economic instability, growing poverty and soaring rates of violent crime have turned Venezuela from a model of stable constitutionalism to a nation on the edge of collapse. The country's 32 prisons are both an outlet and a reflection of this ongoing crisis.

Things weren't always so bad. Stable governments flush with oil revenues maintained relatively humane prisons in Venezuela over most of the past 60 years. The harsh jails that symbolized 27 years of repressive rule under Juan Vicente Gomez were torn down in 1937 and new ones were built. A new, more modern prison system was set up after a new Constitution was ratified in 1961. For a brief period in the early 1980s, open prisons, which allowed prisoners to work outside during the day, were in operation. Today, however, Venezuela's prisons are the most overcrowded, inhumane and violent in the region.

As elsewhere in Latin America, crime rates in Venezuela have skyrocketed in tandem with growing poverty, which has nearly doubled over the past decade. Currently, 62% of Venezuelans live below the poverty line, while prices for basic foodstuffs have risen beyond the reach of 75% of the population.1 Crime has risen just as dramatically. Since 1990, the murder rate has increased by 73%. Assaults are up 16%, and robberies have jumped 26%.2 The Venezuelan government, however, has failed to devise a coherent, viable policy to this crime wave. The government , unable to stem the rises in murder, drug trafficking, and other violent crimes, has instead focused on misdemeanors such as loitering and lacking proper identification. A profile of the prison population, overwhelmingly poor and young, also reflects the linkage between growing crime and poverty. About 70% of prisoners are between 18 and 25 years old, and 20% are between 26 and 29.3 Nearly 70% have not finished elementary school, and most are manual workers and agricultural laborers. At the same time, the greatest percentage of crimes involve property crimes, not acts against persons. Almost 60% of prisoners were charged with crimes against persons in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, however, that percentage had dropped by half, while the percentage of those charged with property crimes jumped from 21% to 45%, and has stayed that way ever since.

But even arresting the most violent criminals will not make a dent in the prison crisis without a sustained attack on the problems that underlie it. The most evident of those problems is the insufficient amount of spending on the prisons and prisoners themselves. In comparison with other countries, Venezuela spends only a tiny amount for prisoners' basic needs. While neighboring Colombia budgets about $319 a month per prisoner, Venezuela forks out a scant $56. As a result, health conditions are abysmal in many prisons. Typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, scabies, and numerous other viruses run rampant. Mentally ill prisoners receive no special treatment. Though no official statistics are available, the rate of HIV infection is probably as high as that in Brazil, where 35% of female prisoners and 20% of males have the AIDS virus.4 At El Dorado prison in the Amazonian state of Bolivar, spending amounts to about 18 cents per prisoner per day. It shows: there is one bed for every four inmates, prison cells are infested with vermin, and prisoners go without shoes, adequate clothing, clean bathing water, or eating utensils. Throughout the entire Venezuelan system, prison buildings are in dire need of attention. Things fall apart and stay that way, says Luis A. Lara Roche, warden of Reten de la Planta prison.

As a result of inadequate resources and rising crime rates, overcrowding has become a permanent feature of Venezuela's prisons. A penitentiary system originally built to hold 15,426 inmates actually holds anywhere between 24,000 and 27,000 inmates.5 Some facilities have operated at three to four times their capacity.6 The General Penitentiary of Venezuela prison in the western state of Guarico was built for 750 but holds up to 2,100. Tocuyito, a prison facility in Valencia designed for 1,500, has held between 1,700 and 4,500 inmates. Space is at such a premium at Caracas' massive Reten de Catia prison that anyone lucky enough to string a hammock from the ceiling, or to find a stair to sit on, will not budge for days for fear of losing the coveted spot.

As a result of this overcrowing, basic protections are routinely ignored. Prisoners who are awaiting trial often share cells with those already tried and sentenced, and those convicted of minor offenses, like petty theft, with prisoners convicted of murder. Minors are often held in the same cells as adults, despite laws mandating that they be jailed separately.7

Such massive overcrowding has been the flash point for a spiraling rise in prison violence. While under 100 prison deaths were reported each year during the late 1980s, over 200 deaths were registered in 1990. In 1994, at least 354 inmates were killed in the jails, and over 700 were seriously injured.

Due to the combination of corruption and an insufficient number of prison authorities, whole areas of many prisons to go unpatrolled. Visiting lawyers and families easily smuggle weapons to inmates, who form heavily armed rival gangs that fight over territory and haggle over control of a lucrative drug trade in cocaine and heroin within the prisons. Prisoners also plot mass escapes, which, like the gang rivalry, often end up in riots and uncontrolled bloodshed. The violence reached such heights in 1994 that at the end of that year, the Minister of Justice ordered the National Guard to take over the administration of seven of the most violent prisons.

Also fueling the violence is the institutionalized abuse of inmates by prison officials. Media criticism has focused on the heavy-handed tactics of the National Guard in its attempts to regain control over the prisons. Yet abuse against inmates at the hands of regular prison officials is a daily occurrence in Venezuela's jails. Inmates who denounce the inhumane conditions or who demand improvements frequently face harsh retribution. In an attempt to break up a hunger strike of hundreds of inmates protesting conditions in Maracaibo prison in 1990, the National Guard packed off a group of 239 prisoners to El Dorado, beating them en route. Once there, prison officials severely limited their contacts with families and lawyers.

Events following an inmate uprising at the General Penitentiary of Venezuela in October 1991 reveal the extent to which official abuse may go—not only in the of use deadly force to quell restless prisoners, but to cover-up their acts after the fact. After the National Guard put the riots down, prisoners claimed that rebellious inmates had been murdered and their bodies dumped into wells of death. The Attorney General's office carried out an investigation, and concluded that the inmates allegedly killed by the National Guard had simply been transferred to other jails. Prisoner agitation continued, however, forcing a new investigation. This time, the wells and several prisoners' corpses were found. Prison officials blamed other inmates for the murders, but the prisoners vigorously denied the accusation. The matter was never resolved, however, as the government simply dropped the investigation.

Investing resources into prison reform will only have a short-term effect, however, unless the Venezuelan government addresses the lack of institutional coordination and the poor protection of detainee rights that have all but destroyed the criminal-justice system. Most of the agencies responsible for overseeing the prisons and guaranteeing prisoners' rights work at cross-purposes or do not work at all. The Venezuelan state is so disorganized, said a report of the National Comptroller recently, that it is at the point of disappearing—if it hasn't done so already.8

The government's first step out of this chaos is to confront the immediate cause of prison overcrowding—the large percentage of prisoners awaiting trial. When democracy was re-established in Venezuela in 1958, some 50% of the country's prisoners awaited trial and sentencing. Today, that figure is over 70%.9 The bottlenecks begin in the courts—too mired in a crumbling infrastructure and a lack of judges to handle even a fraction of the cases before them. On average, the length of detention from the point of the detainee's initial declaration to the first sentencing lasts four years, and the average criminal trial can take four-and-a-half years. Because of these delays, some prisoners languish in jail for eight years before being found innocent. One prisoner at Reten de la Planta said he had spent five years there in the 1980s before being acquitted. Others end up serving more time than their sentences would have dictated. The release of a mentally ill prisoner from Ciudad Bolivar prison, for example, was held up for 11 years because of bureaucratic miscommunication. Huge backlogs of this kind are a chronic problem in Latin America, especially compared to the poorer countries in Europe and even Africa.10 In Argentina, for example, about 75% of the actual prison population in Buenos Aires province has waited over two years to be sentenced.11 In El Salvador, about 77% of its 6,300 prisoners are unsentenced. Peru's vice-minister of justice said the rate of unsentenced inmates in his country was around 90%.

Compounding the slowness of the Venezuelan judicial system is the fact that many of those arrested lack resources to hire private lawyers, and must rely on state-provided public defenders. Yet there is a serious shortage of public defenders, and those that do practice are seriously overloaded, handling an average of 300 to 400 cases a year. As a result, the vast majority of detainees receive little or no legal representation. The initial criminal investigation, known as the sumario, also impedes detainees from having an adequate defense. The sumario, which determines whether the charges against the accused violate the law, and whether the events underlying the accusation actually occurred, is carried out in secret, supposedly to prevent external interference. The defendant's only right during the sumario is to view the official court file, which cannot be copied.

No amount of due process provisions in national or international law seems capable of counteracting plain institutional indifference. Many regulations on probation and conditional liberty introduced in the 1980s have since become dead letters because of a lack of follow-up. Most of the Assistance Centers established by a 1980 law, which helped thousands of ex-prisoners and kept their rate of recidivism below 4%, have fallen into disuse.10 Legal-aid, bail and prisoner-work laws legislated in the early 1990s helped reduce Venezuela's prison population from an all-time high of 31,400 in 1992 to just under 25,000 in 1995 through outreach to the poor and alternative methods of conflict resolution, but they too are underfunded and inconsistently applied.

Because of this inability to keep track of ex-convicts, as well as because of the poor quality of resocialization programs inside the prisons, many penitentiary officials are reluctant to release detainees. In some cases, legal provisions set up to protect defendants actually keep them ensnared in the judicial bureaucracy. The 1994 Narcotics Law is a case in point. This law's automatic appeals process— coupled with bureaucratic incompetence—has kept many detainees incarcerated while awaiting higher court review. Some linger on in prison even after being acquitted twice.

The poor coordination among state agencies running the criminal-justice system has given rise to the systematic violation of detainees' rights. One exasperated official from the attorney general's office said that although public prosecutors are supposed to be present when a detainee gives his or her statement to the police, detainees are routinely brought to police stations with clandestine basements where confessions are often extracted under torture. Rights protection is even more precarious inside the prisons. According to the federal criminal code, judicial officials must inspect prison conditions every 15 days and hear prisoner complaints. Even when such visits do occur, they are rarely followed up.

Left to fill the vacuum created by this disintegration of public administration are Venezuela's numerous police forces. At the national level, the Judicial Police has used its criminal-investigative powers to create a sophisticated network that has all but replaced the authority of judges over processes of arrest and treatment of detainees. The Criminal Code gives the police wide control over the penal process, and their superior organization and actual physical control over detainees allows them to dominate the sumario and other pre-trial procedures.

Out on the streets, meanwhile, forces like the Caracas Metropolitan Police carry out mass detentions, conduct illegal curfews and commit arbitrary killings—all with little accountability. Individuals are often arrested in police sweeps for not possessing identity documents, and many are then held indefinitely because of their prior criminal records. Over 500 people are arrested yearly under the Law of Vagabonds and Crooks, a military statute from the 1930s which allows for the arrest of suspicious individuals or those fomenting vices in public. Several attempts to have the law declared unconstitutional have failed. Either the government is completely incompetent, or they want the law to stay as it is, said a resident of Catia, a poor barrio in Caracas, who was detained in one of the many police roundups carried out under law. It's the only criminal 'policy' the government has, and it's seen as being 'tough' on crime.

Growing public anxiety, fueled by a lack of government direction, is the third and most entrenched problem surrounding the prison crisis. Venezuelans, above all, are fearful of violent crime. In a 1990 nation poll, 43% said that delinquency was their chief worry.12 (The cost of living came a distant second, at 15%.) In another survey, 69% said they were likely to be the victim of an assault or a robbery within the next two months, and—reflecting the widespread perception of the police—65% said they believed their attacker would be a officer from one of the police forces.13

Such fears and distrust have fed into a wave of vigilante- style justice in poor neighborhoods throughout Caracas. Angry mobs have spontaneously lynched criminals caught en flagrante delicto in the poor neighborhoods of the city, while some communities have formed watch groups that plan to take the law into their own hands. Only a few lynchings occurred in 1994, but this year a lynching is reported almost weekly. In a nationwide poll conducted last year, 57% said they favored lynchings.14

Even in the face of such extremes, government officials have not devised a coherent policy to deal with the crime epidemic or its underlying causes. Instead, officials have pandered to the public's fears by both condemning and tacitly supporting the practice of vigilantism. The only consistent government policy has been ever-increasing rates of incarceration, followed by official claims that those arrested are the real source of crime. This approach has increased public toleration of inhumane prison conditions while avoiding needed long-term solutions. But such equivocations and empty rhetoric have served mainly to verify the belief of most Venezuelans that the government is ill- prepared to address crime and the conditions that feed it. Of those surveyed in an April, 1995 poll, 92% said that they believed that neither the nation's leaders nor its institutions were capable of resolving the country's problems.15

Reform efforts to respond to Venezuela's prison debacle, however, are gaining steam. In part because of the political instability that has wracked the country the past several years, new groups have emerged to challenge the traditional domination of the Venezuelan political system by Democratic Action (AD) and TK (COPEI). Together with reform-minded elements of AD and COPEI, these new movements, including the left-wing Causa R, have spearheaded efforts to reform the worst aspects of both the criminal-justice process and the penitentiary system. Members of Congress from COPEI and Causa R, for example, recently introduced a new Penal Procedure Code bill, which would eliminate the sumario. The attorney general has proposed the elimination of the powerful Judicial Police. In the last few years, the government even began a campaign against corruption in the prisons, estimated to account for $10.6 million per year. Last year it replaced hundreds of corrupt guards at Reten de Catia prison with newly-trained personnel.

Hope for more long-term changes in Venezuela's prisons rests on efforts to decentralize the federal government, which would mean greater leverage for the country's 22 state governors to tailor penitentiary policy to the prisons in their jurisdiction. With the rise of new political forces and a 1989 law replacing Presidential appointment of the state's governors with direct elections, many states are likely to initiate penitentiary reforms once a decentralization structure is more formalized and local revenue sources are developed.

Other non-governmental actors are also pressuring for change. Universities like the National University's Institute of Penitentiary Education have established programs in criminal- policy studies that are developing new proposals and ideas. More immediately, increasing attention on the prison crisis by the Venezuelan media and international human rights organizations has also generated pressure for change, lending support to advocates of reform.

But unless these various initiatives and openings add up to an honest look at the effects of the country's social, political and economic ills, they will have little chance of succeeding. Despite their particularly horrible conditions, the prisons of Venezuela and other countries are not an isolated phenomenon. They are an extension of the legal system, government practices, and the way leaders portray the issue of law and order. While the political and economic institutions that have generated the prison crisis cannot be changed overnight, it is important to cultivate greater public understanding of how these institutions affect ordinary citizens. The only thing I would ask, says Roberto M., who was recently released from El Dorado prison after five months for not having his identification card, is that everyone understands how hellish these prisons really are.

Ungar Sidebar: Trafficking Behind Bars

Far beyond the Venezuelan government's reach is a massive, not-so-underground prison economy based on a lucrative trade in cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other drugs.1 In smaller prisons, this trade is worth between $353,000 and $470,865 a year. In prisons with more than 2,000 inmates, it has reached annual levels of $3.5 million.

About 14 prisons form part of a complex organizational pyramid, coordinating the flow of drugs and drug money within and without the prisons. At the base of the pyramid are the drug runners, nicknamed chiguires after the world's largest species of rodent, native to Venezuela. The chiguires are usually prisoners or ex-cons forced into the job for protection. At the next level are distribution centers, directed by internal cartels, which supply the chiguires with drugs funneled in by infiltrators. The infiltrators are linked to an external cartel outside the prisons. At the top of the scheme are inmates, guards and other prison officials responsible for money laundering and bank accounts. The lawyers and families who make up an estimated 400 daily prison visits also lend a hand, stuffing narcotics into the tails of kites and using other smuggling methods about as subtle as baking a saw into a cake.2

Drug trafficking inside Venezuela's prisons is closely connected to a surge in drug abuse and drug trafficking across the country. With many traditional routes cut-off, more and more traffickers are using Venezuela's huge border with Colombia and its long Caribbean coastline as their preferred route to North America and Europe. The number of arrests for narcotics violations law almost doubled between 1989 and 1993, from 8,603 to 15,970.2 Yet, even government officials admit that these numbers represent only a fraction of those involved in the trade. Most of the profits are channeled into international money-laundering networks headed by influential Venezuelan businessmen.

A growing number of police officers and prison officials participate directly in the drug trade, forming a tight circle of complicity and corruption. But the Colombianization of Venezuela is most apparent in the judicial system. Judges are frequently bought by drug traffickers. Evidence disappears from their chambers and the traffickers go free. A criminal judge in the state of Miranda once released several suspects who had been captured by the Judicial Police (PTJ), the federal agency in charge of narcotics investigations.3 After the suspects were re- arrested, the judge ordered the arrest of the PTJ's anti-drug division in retaliation. Violence against judges involved in sensitive drug cases is also on the rise. Since 1992, dozens of judges have been killed, while many others have received death threats and letter bombs. For now, at least, the prison drug economy and the regional drug trade seem more capable of controlling the Venezuelan government than the other way around.


1. Information on the prison drug economy are from the author's interviews with prison officials at Reten de Catia and the Penitentiary University Institute, May 2, 1995 and June 8, 1995. Also from El Nacional (Caracas) September 2, 1988, p. D2; El Diario de Caracas (Caracas) March 10, 1995, p. 7, and El Universal (Caracas) March 21, 195, pp. 2-9.

2. Central Office of Statistics and Information, Anuario Estadistico de Venezuela, 1993 (Caracas: Presidency of the Republic, 1993).

3. Author's interviews with criminal court judges in Caracas and Miranda, March and April, 1995. See also William Ojeda, @Cuanto vale un juez? (Caracas: Vadell Hermanos, 1995), pp. 43-46.