Punto Fijo, January 28th, 2013 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – A massacre in a Venezuelan prison that resulted in more than 60 dead and 120 wounded on Friday has generated a flurry of criticism of the Venezuelan government for the situation in the country’s prison system.
The massacre occurred last Friday in the Uribana prison located in the western state of Lara, after the Venezuelan National Guard attempted to take control of the prison and disarm the prisoners inside.
Venezuela’s prison system is known for its poor conditions, extreme overcrowding, and corrupt management that often lead to the prisons spiraling out of state control and into the hands of heavily-armed prison bosses on the inside.
The situation has deteriorated to such a point in recent years that President Hugo Chavez created a new government ministry in 2011 to tackle the problem. Since then, government forces have been intervening in prisons across the country to regain control from prison mafias and disarm the prison population.
Government intervention in the Uribana prison on Friday ended in tragedy, however, as violence erupted and resulted in the death of one national guardsman, a pastor, and nearly sixty prisoners.
Although it is unclear exactly how the violence erupted, authorities say a group of prisoners refused to allow a government-ordered inspection and disarming to be carried out, and attacked other prisoners who were cooperating with officials.
“This is what we are combating. Unfortunately there are violent groups with connections to corrupt officials that stain the honor of our state institutions,” said the Minister of Prison Services Iris Varela.
Varela announced on Sunday that the Uribana prison would be temporarily closed down, its inhabitants transferred to other prisons, and it would be transformed into a medium and minimum security prison.
Construction crews have almost finished a new prison nearby that will be used for accused criminals awaiting trial.
Opposition politicians and media took advantage of the situation to launch a flurry of criticism of the situation of the country’s prisons, placing blame for the massacre on the government.
“The only one responsible for the prison violence is the government,” said opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
The opposition coalition organization (MUD) immediately emitted a press release calling the event “evidence of the government’s failed prison policy”.
“The creation of the new Ministry of Prison Services has only made the prison violence worse,” said the statement, citing more than 600 prison deaths since Iris Varela became the new prisons minister in 2011.
The NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) called the violence “disproportionate” and called for an “exhaustive investigation” to determine who was responsible.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles also weighed in, accusing the government of being “indifferent” to the killing of prisoners, and promising that he would transform the prison system.
“The problem isn’t solved by closing a prison, but rather by solving the problem of overcrowding and turning prisons into rehabilitation centers,” said Capriles.
“We can solve the prison problem in one year if there is political will,” he added.
However the problems of Venezuela's prison system have been ongoing for decades, and solutions have been elusive.
Venezuela’s current prison population reaches almost 50,000, yet the country currently only has the prison capacity to hold about 14,500 inmates.
The Uribana prison was built in 1998 to replace the Retén de Catia prison after one of Venezuela’s worst prison massacres occurred there in 1992 and the facility was destroyed.
Uribana was intended to be a “model prison”, and was carefully designed by the government of Chavez’s predecessor, yet just one year after opening state authorities had lost control of the prison as armed prison mafias took control.
Corrupt prison officials and members of the armed forces often engage in arms and drug trafficking in the prisons, facilitating the inmates’ access to weapons, and making internal control of the facilities practically impossible.
Since the creation of the new ministry over a year ago, however, the government has pledged intervene and retake control over each of the country’s prisons.
“We are eliminating the prison mafias that make money off the misery of others. They are made up of prisoners that try to dominate the prison population, but there are also state officials that get corrupted,” said Varela.
The new prison ministry has carried out several interventions in recent months, some leading to violent resistance, while others have been peaceful. Some prison officials have also been arrested and tried for arms trafficking.
The government has also pledged to build several new prisons, but to date the country’s capacity remains vastly inadequate.