Venezuela’s Neverending Prison Crisis

The story of Tocorón is just another chapter of a complex prison crisis that Chavismo just let run rampant

Reos de Tocorón son organizados por funcionarios de las fuerzas de seguridad (Eleazar Urbaez, 20/09/2023)

On July 31st, 2011, then Minister of Penitentiary Services Iris Valera, announced the need to reduce the amount of inmates in the country. Valera attempted to sell the idea as a matter of “justice,” arguing that many of them were imprisoned for crimes that didn’t deserve such a punishment. “Of the 50,000 inmates in the country, some 20,000 must be set free, they deserve it and it’s fair that they should be outside,” she said.

A few days later, president Hugo Chávez announced that 2,000 prisoners had already been set free. In line with Valera’s words, Chávez declared that 20,000 inmates would be released.

These measures weren’t considered in a vacuum, but rather they were the product of a riot that had begun on June 14th, 2011 in El Rodeo, the infamous prison complex located in Guatire. More than 5,000 members of the national security services were deployed in response, taking control of El Rodeo I on June 17th  with at least a thousand inmates holding out in El Rodeo II until July 13th, when they ran out of food. Some twenty-two people would die.

Even with Chávez’s declaration of a “prison emergency” (emergencia carcelaria) in October of 2012, one of his last acts as president, the State continued to struggle to maintain a serious, efficient and humane control over the country’s prisons.

25 people died in Yare I in August of 2012. In January of 2013, at least 60 people died in Uribana. 16 more died in Sabaneta in September of 2013. A fire due to horrible conditions in Tocuyito would take 18 more lives in August of 2015. That same month, El Rodeo II would be news again with inmates kidnapping 5 prison workers. In April of 2017, we counted another 12 dead in a riot at Puerto Ayala. That August, another 37 people died during a special forces operation in Puerto Ayacucho. A staggering 68 people died in a fire, the consequence of a shootout with police forces, in a detainment center in Valencia in March of 2018. In May of 2019, 29 people died during a riot in a police station in Acarigua. In May of 2020, another 46 people died during a riot in the Los Llanos Penitentiary in Guanare.

What on Earth?

The crisis decreed by Chávez in 2012 is far from over and there’s no one more at blame than the State’s own incompetence in dealing with these situations. Of course, prison riots aren’t just the fault of prison workers, but the consequence of the long line of failed public policy decisions that have allowed the prison population to continue growing and for “mega-gangs” like Tren de Aragua to expand and even thrive.

For years, the Tocorón penitentiary has been the prime example of the State’s lack of control over organized crime. A city within the walls of what was once a prison, complemented by a swimming pool, a children’s playground, a zoo, a baseball diamond, a nightclub and many shops for the enjoyment of the “inmates” and their families who really ran Tocorón.

It’s from within the walls of this safe haven that El Tren de Aragua managed to expand its criminal activities throughout the entire continent, an impressive achievement for what started out as a group of unionists extorting public contractors. From Tocorón, Tren de Aragua coordinated its network of crimes and its control of Venezuela’s border regions. This level of expansion, as well as the audacity of the crimes being committed which included illegal mining, drug trafficking, human trafficking and weapons exports revealed, slowly, that the gang must’ve operated with the State’s blessing (or perhaps even more than that).

This is a feeling that’s hard to shake when we see the vast arsenal of weapons the inmates had at Tocorón and compare that to just how easy it was for police and military forces to retake the prison. All of those weapons and the prison was retaken without a single casualty?

Things get even murkier when we realize that all the Tren de Aragua bigwigs that lived in Tocorón, like Hector “Niño” Guerrero, coincidentally managed to escape days before the start of the operation. This series of coincidences has led some, like journalist Ronna Rísquez, to speculate that the prison’s recapture by government forces may be part of a negotiated agreement between them and Tren de Aragua.

In the days that have followed, some 87 people who escaped Tocorón during the siege have been recaptured by the authorities, but all the big-name-items remain at large. For now, Tocorón’s inmates will be redistributed among the country’s prisons, probably a strategy to “disband” Tren de Aragua by separating its members.

A relatively simple recapture, in the midst of increased anti-mining military operations in Yapacana, which fails to capture any of the heads of Tocorón’s criminal leadership (a group the authorities refuse to mention by name) sounds more like a propaganda victory for the government than a true success for the people who have been terrorized by the gang. With time, we’ll know more about what truly happened in Operación Liberación Gran Cacique Guaicaipuro 2023, but we’ll just get crumbs of the truth. The whole story will take years to be known, in the best of cases.

For now, all we see is another chapter in the endless story of Venezuela’s prison crisis.