In 2012, the little-known reggaetón group ‘Los Catedrátikos’ released a music video filmed inside Sabaneta Prison in Maracaibo: full of rifles, pistols, and bulletproof vests. Now, an armed “intervention” of Tocorón prison is giving us a new opportunity to observe the strange phenomenon of Venezuela’s prisons that aren’t really prisons. This operation, however, had little to do with reestablishing control of the prison system. In fact, it had a lot to do with the Maduro regime’s new approach to internal security and the political intent of some increasingly relevant figures within the government.
First, we must understand at least partially the Venezuelan penitentiary system, an emblematic example of the challenges that correctional facilities face in some parts of the world. Historically underfunded and overcrowded, many of Venezuela’s prisons have become self-governing entities controlled by inmates rather than by the state. In fact, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, only 11% of Venezuela’s inmate population is under state control: the rest are either under “pranatos” (46%)—feudoms controlled by gang leaders—or mixed pranato-state systems (43%).
“Pranatos” are led by powerful inmates known as “pranes” who maintain their own hierarchy and rules within the prison walls. With lax oversight from the government, these prisons have evolved into epicenters of criminal activity since the government of Hugo Chávez ceded internal control of prisons to inmates in 2005 so they could maintain order and avoid deaths.
Within prison walls, not only do illicit trade and activities flourish, but whole communities also sprout, with families of inmates setting up makeshift homes around the prison perimeter. The blurred lines between the incarcerated and the outside world further deepen the complexities, as prisons transform into economic and social hubs; distinct from the conventional understanding of penitentiaries.
For many years, Tocorón has served as the stronghold for the Venezuelan mega-gang Tren de Aragua, so it came as a significant surprise when it was revealed that the government conducted Operation Cacique Guaicaipuro to regain control of the prison. Tocorón had been for years under the leadership of Héctor Guerrero Flórez a.k.a. Niño Guerrero (Warchild), the most well-known criminal leader of Tren de Aragua in Venezuela. By the age of 17, Niño Guerrero was involved in drug trafficking and had committed violent crimes, eventually becoming one of Venezuela’s most wanted criminals. Despite multiple arrests, escapes, and re-incarcerations, Guerrero continued to lead Tren de Aragua, participating in various criminal activities like kidnapping, extortion, and drug trafficking. His ability to maintain influence while imprisoned highlights the significant challenges Venezuelan authorities face in controlling and prosecuting high-profile criminals.
In an official statement, the government declared the operation in Tocorón a total success, praising security forces for swiftly restoring order and regaining control of the penitentiary. But unofficial reports soon disclosed that Niño Guerrero had escaped hours before, after being alerted that at least 11,000 heavily armed agents—including police and military personnel—would be entering the prison. While the operation was potentially significant given that Tocorón was the operational center of the organization, the closure of the prison does not necessarily mean that Tren de Aragua has been deactivated. Official government statements have not mentioned Tren de Aragua or its leaders, focusing solely on the prison takeover. The absence of direct references to the criminal organization and its leaders in the official communication suggests a need for cautious interpretation of the events and their implications for the criminal landscape in Venezuela.
While Tren de Aragua´s almost unscathed escape is relevant, as well as the overall operation in Tocorón, it is only a small fraction of the bigger picture: a much larger shift in the Venezuelan regime’s security strategy and the political positioning of a few key figures.
Suspicions regarding the operation arise not only from the escape of “Niño Guerrero” but also the magnitude of criminal operations within and around the prison. As in past instances of intervention in these penitentiaries, the internal infrastructure reveals that control was exerted by criminal agents and not state institutions: allowing for the free flow of people, goods and services and the establishment of housing arrangement for families, commercial centers, recreational activities, bars and nightclubs as well as a long list of luxuries foreign to many Venezuelans after years of chronic social-economic crisis.
Perhaps most shocking was the seized caches of weapons and ammunition. Images, at first few and highly controlled by the government, showed impressive stocks of ammunition much of which is currently scarce in the Venezuelan Armed Force and security force supply. Cans of Cuban 7.62×39 ammunition (for AKM and AK-103 rifles), belted 7.62×51 ammunition of medium machine guns (MG/AFAG), .50 caliber ammunition for heavy machine guns and anti-materiel rifles, used man-portable anti-tank systems, explosive material and detonation cords and most surprising: 2.75-inch diameter aerial unguided rocket engines and their corresponding warheads. Rifles and pistols were few and scarce, and only one of the seized weapons corresponded with the seized ammunition, suggesting that Niño Guerrero’s advance warning to leave before the operation not only facilitated the escape of the Tren de Aragua leadership but also led to the evacuation of a significant portion of modern assault rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, anti-materiel rifles and explosives usually seen in the hands of this organization.
While Tren de Aragua´s almost unscathed escape is relevant, as well as the overall operation in Tocorón, it is only a small fraction of the bigger picture: a much larger shift in the Venezuelan regime’s security strategy and the political positioning of a few key figures. By 2019, the Maduro government had been forced to retreat to Caracas, as criminal organizations of all sorts became the prevalent control structures across the country. These organizations included colectivos, mega-gangs, Colombian guerrillas, paramilitary groups and even individual military units operating independently in any given area. The regime fortified its positions in Caracas, with a not insignificant number of Chavista leaders living within Fuerte Tiuna’s military installations.
From here, the Bolivarian National Armed Force (FANB) would start to shift its emphasis on conventional military operations against foreign state actors and prioritize capacities to deal with criminal insurgencies across the country. The battles in Apure in 2021 were the best example of this shift, as FANB became directly involved in a dispute amongst competing dissident FARC groups and the ELN—different Colombian guerrilla groups—for territorial control in Apure. Venezuela conducted massive operations in Apure, reminiscent in form, tactics and size to counter insurgency operations of the 60s. Yet, the FANB was ill-prepared: they lacked manpower, training and equipment. And even when Venezuela’s elite forces entered the scene, they were hit hard by battle-hardened guerrillas.
This first grand experiment in the regime´s new internal security scheme failed, mostly because of operational and tactical problems. However, it provided invaluable know-how for the FANB and its leadership, especially Admiral Remigio Ceballos who was then Chief of the Strategic Operational Command of the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (CEOFANB). While Ceballos would take the fall and leave CEOFANB, he would take a much more prominent role key to understanding recent events in Tocorón: Minister of Interior Relations, Justice and Peace, and Vice President of the Government for Citizen Security.
Ceballos has become a fundamental player in this shift towards internal security, leading the restructuring of the country’s security forces, augmenting intelligence capacities, bringing in external expertise (in the form of Russian military contractors for training and expansion of drone capacities), and bridging existing gaps between the FANB, the National Police and intelligence agencies in order to coordinate nationwide work.
All this sounds marvelous when put in those words, but it also means that he is profoundly committed to 3D political chess in which success is not necessarily linked to results against criminal organizations, but rather to the rearrangement of criminal and political actors in order to increase the regime´s territorial control across the country. In short: it is a strategy that continues to depend on criminal-political partnerships.
Ceballos has created his own paramilitary taskforce and intelligence gathering structure within the ministry to ensure loyalty, while also being savvy in his public communication, exposing himself only when necessary and preferably in large high-profile operations in which he can show results in the form of seizures and massive arrests. As such, Tocorón is the perfect example: a massive joint military-police operation against one of the country’s largest criminal organizations and illicit activities hub, in which flashy seizures are made alongside arrests but criminal leadership are provided the opportunity to escape and continue operation with impunity and in coordination with their political patrons. Operation Cacique Guaicaipuro is not only a new chapter in the regime ‘s internal political rearrangement. It is also part of the shifts and updates to its internal security scheme to deal with new threats and exert control via partners and proxies.
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