Two weeks after deadly rioting sparked an ongoing siege in Venezuela’s notorious El Rodeo jail, authorities say they have arrested two of the prison’s directors on drug and arms trafficking charges.
Luisa Ortega Díaz, Venezuela’s Attorney General, said Luis Rafael Aranguren, the director of the El Rodeo 2 unit, and Ruben Jose Gonzalez Heredia, the vice-director of the El Rodeo 1 unit, had been taken into custody.
Heredia is accused of “facilitating” the entry of guns, explosives and drugs into the prison, while Aranguren faces corruption and gun-running charges. Violence at the El Rodeo complex, just outside of Caracas, began on June 12, with clashes between rival gangs leaving at least 22 dead.
Confrontations broke out again on June 17, after prison gang leaders threatened to hold hostage thousands of other inmates, making demands on state authorities. Security forces swept into the prison in an attempt to rescue hostages and disarm the facilities, triggering gun battles between troops and prisoners. El Rodeo’s rebelling inmates are said to control an arsenal that includes AK-47 and R-15 assault rifles and even a 50-calibre anti-aircraft machine gun. Government troops managed to regain control of El Rodeo 1, but up to 1,200 prisoners remain under siege in El Rodeo 2, though some have escaped the building and been rescued by state forces.
Authorities have blamed the stalemate on Yorvis Valentín Lopez Cortez, a 26-year-old prison leader or “pran” better known as “El Oriente”. Reportedly a convicted murderer who took over de facto control of El Rodeo 2 in 2009, he is said to run the jail with support from a 20-year-old known as “El Yoifre”.
During telephone interviews with local journalists – part of a propaganda battle between gang leaders collaborating with opposition groups against the government – El Oriente has accused security forces of committing human rights abuses and issued threats. “If the guards come into the prison many people will die, many guards and many prisoners”, he told private opposition news daily El Universal on Monday.
Private Venezuelan media, which carry a hard-core anti-Chavez editorial line, have given widespread coverage to the prisoners, even publishing their interviews and alleged photographs and videos, despite no verification of real sources. Many in Venezuela see this as a dangerous role for media to play, taking the side of convicted violent criminals as a way to discredit the government, which they criticize.
In a bizarre turn of events, videos from alleged prisoners inside El Rodeo 2 have been posted on YouTube, although there is no way to verify their origen or content. In one video, an alleged masked prisoner leader makes a plea for “international help”, falling in line with postures of the Venezuelan opposition who continuously seek foreign intervention to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela’s deputy justice minister, Nestor Reverol, declared to media that a small group of “delinquents” had in effect kidnapped hundreds of other prisoners inside the cellblock. “We will continue to ask these delinquents to give up. We will not withdraw our troops”, he added.
The government has taken all measures to ensure the human rights of the prisoners are respected and protected, even those engaging in violent behavior threatening the lives of others. At no time have state authorities attempted to forcefully resolve the situation, despite the major danger the prison gang leaders present to the security of all in the vicinity. The Venezuelan government has affirmed it will continue to attempt to resolve the crisis through dialogue.
The riots come just as the Chavez administration is undertaking an ambitious reform of the penitentiary system, with the overreaching goal of humanizing prisons.