Pran Populism: How prison thugs fanned the flames in Ciudad Bolívar

By now, two things about the Sack of Ciudad Bolívar are clear: first, this was huge. Second, the riots didn’t really spread outside Bolívar State. To understand why, you have to understand pran culture, Ciudad Bolívar style.

By now, two things are abundantly clear about the Sack of Ciudad Bolívar. First, the riots this weekend gripped the whole city — this was on a different scale from looting episodes we like the one in Cumaná in June, for instance. Second, what started in Guayana didn’t spread caracazo-style beyond Bolívar State.

So why there?

And why only there?

Ciudad Bolívar: City of Pranes

by Adriana Moreno

The rise of the pran, the all-powerful prison gang leader, has been one of the defining features of the Maduro years. Pran authority now goes well beyond the prison walls, spreading into society as a whole. When el Conejo, the Margarita prison pran, was killed earlier this year, the whole island went into a kind of #TropicalMierda state mourning, dawn-to-dusk curfew and all. 

Pranes increasingly act like hyper-empowered local mob bosses, running protection rackets and imposing order over swathes of territory. So, if you want to understand what happened in Ciudad Bolívar, you’d better start with Wilmito, top dog at the city’s infamous Vista Hermosa prison.

Wilmito’s not any old pran. He’s understood to control some of the gold mines in the area, making him one of the nation’s most cash-flush pranes. In 2013, Wilmito let Sebastian Liste, a photojournalist for Getty, go into his prison kingdom to take some photos. Definitely take a minute to look through those to get a sense of what it’s all like. (One of Liste’s photos is at the top of this post.)

Wilmito throws some legendary parties, with loud music, alcohol and guns.

Here’s the thing: people see Wilmito as a “buen malandro”. For years, the sprawling protection racket he runs on businesses throughout Ciudad Bolívar was paid almost willingly, because “he takes care of his people”. In the slum where he grew up, El Hipódromo, Wilmito throws some legendary parties, with loud music, alcohol and guns. It’s a no go area for the police, to be sure, but who needs cops when Wilmito’s around? No one would dare cause trouble at one of his famous parties at El Hipódromo.

And here’s the real problem: powerful though he is, Wilmito’s not the only gang leader around, there are many others. They don’t just compete for control of the city or the mines, but also for the loyalty of the area’s people. Hence the parties and the protection. Each tries to position themselves as the good guy, and it works. When an area is under the control of a good pran, people feel somewhat protected, at least. Business owners prefer to pay a tax that actually deters crime than to depend on the entirely useless local police.

Pranes even offer some job opportunities, in the mines. You can take out all the gold you can find, as long as you remember to sell it to the gang that runs that area at the price they set. As the Tumeremo massacre showed, it’s a high risk job, but it’s a job.

You can pay your way out of jail with the help of the pranes too, which signals a level of influence over the judiciary system. As Clavel Rangel puts it, the power of the pranes in Ciudad Bolívar is an open secret.

Competition between pranes is unceasing, and the leadership changes are often chaotic. This is the stuff of Bolivarense gossip. People of all backgrounds constantly talk about who is in charge of what and who killed whom. In the slums, Pranes and the thuglife they rule over are just the way things are, to the point where people use “malandro” (thug) as an adjective to mean “cool” or “top notch”.

The Pran and the Loot

According to the Governor Rangel Gómez, “there is organized crime here that was moved politically to cause chaos in this city.” For once, it’s not a complete lie, it’s only 50% lie.  He blames the opposition for the lootings —that’s just noise— but the perception locally is that the looting really was encouraged by the organized crime. Or check out this bit of the press conference Diosdado Cabello gave in Ciudad Bolívar.

The questions are much better than the answers.

All weekend, social media carried rumors of malandros in slums waving machine guns in the air and telling people to get together to loot a given area. We can’t confirm whether that really happened, but it’s clear that a lot of people believed it happened. People felt they were looting with pran protection. And that’s all it takes. They know the police won’t intervene if a powerful enough pran is behind the call to loot.

They didn’t have to engineer every looting attempt to wake-up the monster, they just had to get the snowball rolling down the hill.

Our sense is that the violence in Ciudad Bolívar started as a genuine protests, a social outburst over anger for the Bs.100 bills measure. But on Saturday the malandros started egging the looters on, in many places of the city at the same time.

They didn’t have to engineer every looting attempt to wake-up the monster, they just had to get the snowball rolling down the hill. They had to do just enough to overwhelm the security forces. After that, the stew of hunger and desperation in the city did the work. Some people who aren’t even poor came out out of sheer opportunism, others because they’re angry at the shop owners for raising their prices, and some because they’re legitimately hungry. It’s a cocktail. With no police around, neighbors started to organized themselves to loot.

More than once we heard that in some places the looting got so bad that even the people that initially didn’t want to take part felt forced to join in: if they didn’t, how on earth could they expect to find food when the dust settled and all the stores were gone?

Perhaps some saw it as an opportunity to extend the territory they control: a kind of Pran Populism.

It is hard to pinpoint the incentives of the pranes in creating the chaos without going fully speculative. Guayana thugs had better reason than most to resent the Bs.100 bill measure: most of their operations are done in cash. Maybe the sometimes collaborative but always tense relationship with state authorities broke down entirely for another reason we haven’t heard about.

But our guess is that some saw it as an opportunity to extend the territory they control: a kind of Pran Populism, with thugs organizing a Dakazo of their own for the same reason the national government did. Come to think of it, what better way to undermine a rival gang’s authority —and tax base— than to get all the businesses that pay protection to it looted?

Possibly, it was a combination of all the above: what started as retaliation against the government morphed when another faction saw an opening to strike.

But there are some obvious signs that suggest competition between gangs had a lot to do with it. For example, and largely unreported, at about 6:30 p.m. on Saturday evening an almighty gang shootout broke out in Los Coquitos and didn’t subside until about 2:00 a.m. on Sunday. Whatever else was happening, gangs were fighting for turf too.

There are still many questions left unanswered and this is still going. This Monday the lootings continue. Who won the battle yesterday? Who’s the pran now? It won’t make an enormous difference to regular people: it will be just another name playing by the same old rules.

Three years ago, Panfleto Negro ran an essay contest on the topic of Dystopia. My entry was a meditation on the idea that, over time, the real challenge to chavismo’s power would come not from besuited politicians in a Caracas hotel ball room but from the growing influence of the Pran. In Prannation, gang leaders make decisions of State, eventually taking over the state itself and pranifying it top to bottom.

I wrote it as absurdist satire. But it’s 2016: the year absurdist satire has figured out ways to swamp reality.