Mérida, May 4, 2020 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Venezuelan authorities have vowed to carry out a “full investigation” after 45 people were killed in a prison riot on Friday.
The uprising at the Los Llanos Penitentiary Centre in Guanare, Portuguesa State reportedly began at 1pm when clashes broke out between prison guards and inmates armed with firearms, grenades and knives. At least 75 people have been injured, including the prison director, Carlos Toro.
While many of the details concerning the riot remain unclear, on-the-ground sources claimed that inmates refused attempts to negotiate and that an improvised morgue was established close to the prison as local healthcare centres collapsed.
Shortly after the riot, Prisons Minister Iris Varela expressed her “deep regret,” promising to be “strict with those who (…) generated this violence.” She also announced that “special security protocols” had been activated in the facility.
Government sources claim that the riot was instigated by a gang leader known by the alias “Olive,” who allegedly forced some inmates to storm the main gate in an attempted breakout.
However, two opposition-affiliated NGOs, the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory (OVP) and A Window to Liberty, have challenged the minister’s account, pointing out that a breakout “in plain daylight through the main gate is difficult to believe.”
According to the OVP, the “massacre” was sparked by inmates protesting a lack of food and reduced family visiting rights, factors which the organisation claims have been exacerbated by the eight-week-long COVID-19 lockdown. No evidence has been made public to support either explanation.
Following the riot, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and Amnesty International all issued statements calling for Caracas to investigate the incident and guarantee basic rights for inmates.
Venezuelan prisons have historically suffered from overcrowding – in part due to slow and bureaucratic penal processing –, which has worsened in recent years with the government’s return to “tough on crime” crimes policies.
The Los Llanos Penitentiary Centre has a capacity for 750 inmates, but allegedly houses around 2,500. It is one of only five prisons in Venezuela yet to implement a reform program, which, according to the government, combines study, work and new security regulations designed to reduce violence.
Venezuela’s prisons have seen a number of riots in recent years. Last May, 48 people lost their lives when the nearby Acarigua Prison rebelled, while 2018 saw riots in Caracas’ Helicoide Facility and in a police station in Valencia, Carabobo State. Poor sanitary conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic have also sparked uprisings in neighbouring Brazil and in Colombia recently.
Edited by Lucas Koerner from Santiago de Chile.