In mid-March, alarms were being raised about how vulnerable Venezuelan prisoners were to the spread of the coronavirus and the draconian measures implemented to prevent its spread. Two months later, clashes between prisoners and authorities have left at least 57 dead and hundreds injured, with no signs that the situation is changing.
The massacre in early May at a jail in the western state of Portuguesa was just the most recent example of how the coronavirus pandemic has brought violence, neglect and human rights violations in the Venezuelan prison system bubbling to the fore.
On May 1, members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) reportedly opened fire against around 100 prisoners who were rioting at the Los Llanos Penitentiary, also known as Cepella, in the city of Guanare, capital of Portuguesa. Forty-seven prisoners were killed and over 75 people were injured, including the prison director and one guard, although the officials were stabbed, not shot.
This was the second outbreak of violence at a Venezuelan prison since the coronavirus measures were imposed. On March 18, 10 prisoners were killed during an escape attempt from the prison of San Carlos in the northwestern state of Zulia.
According to the official version, the violence at Cepella was to mask an escape attempt, organized by the gang boss of the prison, known as “Olivo.” “[The prisoners] were threatened with firearms and told to go and attack the guard posts in the prison,” Venezuela’s Prison Minister Iris Varela told the press, adding that Olivo had chosen weaker, unarmed prisoners to carry out this attack to cover up the escape.
This take on the events was immediately rejected by relatives of the inmates and non-government organizations, who dismissed the escape story. According to a report by the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP), the prisoners were protesting out of hunger since the coronavirus lockdown has prevented them from seeing their families, on whom they are largely dependent for food.
“According to versions collected on site, the inmates were protesting at not receiving the food their relatives had brought to the penitentiary, which was presumably kept by forces of the Bolivarian National Guard. This led them to go close to the gate which separates them from the administrative area…and they were fired upon,” reads the OVP report.
Since the incident, human rights groups have demanded that the government establish who was responsible for this massacre, the latest in a long list of similar events inside Venezuelan prisons. “This is not the first time we have seen prisoners in Venezuela suffer terrible violations of their right to life…The authorities’ lethal response must be thoroughly investigated and analyzed so that these international crimes do not go unpunished,” wrote Amnesty International.
On May 8, 12 people were charged for their part in the violence, including prison officials and inmates, the Attorney General’s Office announced on Twitter, but no details were provided as to their identities.
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Due to overcrowding and a lack of food and basic supplies, thousands of prisoners have long been dependent on their struggling relatives to feed them. Now, the coronavirus lockdown, coupled with corruption from security officials who steal food, has stripped prisoners of this basic way to survive.
“They are fed because their families bring them food, there is no food program from the state for them,” Carlos Nieto Palma, coordinator for prisoners’ rights non-governmental organization Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom – UVL), told Deutsche Welle.
This has added an unbearable ingredient to an already explosive mix.
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But some questions have been raised about the specific conditions inside the Cepella prison, where the latest massacre took place.
First, authorities blamed the riot on alias “Olivo,” a gang leader who reportedly controls the prison and criminal activities inside it. He was blamed for organizing the protest to disguise an escape attempt, forcing the most vulnerable inmates to lead the attack on security forces. But there have been no reports of escaped prisoners, neither Olivo nor his closest circle have been reported as having been injured nor was it confirmed that they were among those charged.
Second, Cepella is one of several prisons in Venezuela where the government’s program to take back control of prisons from gangs has not been implemented. After the massacre, Varela said that this “transition process” would not be accelerated.
Cepella had a maximum capacity of 750 prisoners but housed over 2,500 at the time of the violence, the BBC reported, quoting OVP figures.
And while the government has not revealed its precise plans to prevent further violence from happening at Cepella, this program has seen prisons shut down entirely after outbreaks of violence, moving prisoners elsewhere. The government has also begun to release prisoners to ease overcrowding.
Even if the government releases some inmates due to the coronavirus outbreak, closing a prison and moving the prisoners elsewhere does not solve the elements that led to the violence.
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