Venezuelan Forces respond to gang violence, disarm prison
Source: Correo del Orinoco International, no 69, 24 June 2011.
State response to the current prison crisis in Venezuela has been based on a premise of respecting human rights and not engaging lethal violence, despite deadly force employed by some prisoners
In response to a confrontation last week between rival gangs in Venezuelan prison El Rodeo I, the Venezuelan government has sent state security forces to disarm gang members and “preserve the lives of other prisoners” in both El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II penitentiaries. The altercation – which left 22 prisoners dead and over 50 injured – has prompted the government to initiate a series of measures in order to take the Revolution into the nation’s jails and regain control of the country’s prison system. Vice-President Elias Jaua described the intervention by state forces as a ‘necessary’ measure and emphasized the government’s commitment to safeguardingthe prisoner’s human rights. “This undertaking isn’t to massacre prisoners, it is to protect their lives from a small group that have wrested control of the internal management of the prison and have committed a massacre in the past few days - resulting in 21 deaths (now confirmed at 22)”, said Jaua. Combining both direct and ‘humanizing’ measures in order to address the problem, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week also approved 413 million bolivars ($96 million) in order to completely reform the penitentiary system.
The Vice-President also highlighted that the government isaddressing the problem from a systematic point of view - “we are working so that our people have the best material conditions so that their children can move forwards and don’t end up in prison. In that exclusionary system, only the poor are sentenced”, he explained.
PRISONS EVACUATED, WEAPONS SEIZED
Thousands of inmates were evacuated to other detention centers throughout the country when gangs put up violent resistance to the operation and a fire broke out in El Rodeo I. So far the total number of inmate casualties is unknown - two officers have lost their lives as a result of the violence. Vice-Minister of Prevention and Citizen Security for the Ministry of Interior Relations and Justice, Nestor Reverol, confirmed that the fire broke out in an ‘empty area’ of the prison and that no inmates were burned – as some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition have claimed.
There are currently around 1000 prisoners remaining in each of the two prisons – with gang leaders in El Rodeo II refusing to cooperate with the Venezuelan authorities despite days of sustained dialogue. Friday los “Pranes” and el “Carro” – the two principal gangs in the prison - have attacked officers and held other inmates hostage as they fight to keep control of the penitentiary. Venezuelan Human Rights Official Gabriela Ramirez confirmed that 90% of the prisoners that remain in El Rodeo II are under intense pressure from gang leaders and reported that rescued inmates stated they “wanted peace”. Calling on the leaders to abandon their violent attitudes and to turn themselves over to authorities, Ramirez reassured them that their human rights would be respected. “Please boys, we are waiting for you here, with hand on heart, for the lives of each one of you. We don’t even want you to scratch yourselves! We want you to come out in a decent condition and without any trauma”, she said to the prisoners.
Following 6 hours of dialogue with inmates, Commander General of the Bolivarian National Guard, Motta Dominguez, confirmed that his forces had confiscated a total of; 7 semi-automatic guns, 5 shotguns, 20 pistols, 8 hand grenades, 45 kilos of cocaine, 5000 ammunition cartridges, 100 mobile phones and 12 kilos of marijuana the operation began on Friday. Venezuelan Defense Minister General Carlos Mata specified that Venezuelan forces had acted within the “framework of the law” to “guarantee the human rights of the inmates” and uphold the fundamental right to life. Reports suggest that the situation is calm in both detention centers, but that a hostile atmosphere prevails in El Rodeo II. The Bolivarian National Guard now has complete control over El Rodeo I.
OPPOSITION AND PRIVATE MEDIA EXPLOIT SITUATION
The National Assembly has confirmed this Monday that it will launch an investigation in response to allegations made by prisoners in El Rodeo against human rights organizations. Following their evacuation, some prisoners have asserted that certain NGOs - in collaboration with private media outlets - deliberately and strategically fomented the violence within the prison. In a televised interview with state channel VTV, one of the prisoners – who wished to remain anonymous – stated that many opposition NGOs are communicating with ‘El Carro’ and informing them what steps to take in order to create a “crisis”. “The directions that they receive in the prisons come from a lot of opposition human rights groups, what they want is to create chaos in order to provoke a penitentiary emergency at a national level”, revealed the prisoner. Maria Mercedes Berthe, Director of Fundamental Rights for the Public Ministry, communicated that at this stage the government couldn’t categorically state whether these allegations held truth or not. “They are making these declarations in their capacity as witnesses. On the basis of this, we will keep investigating in order to find out the truth of these events”, announced Berthe.
The Venezuelan opposition and their private media channels have received strong criticism for exploiting the situation for political gain and releasing inaccurate information surrounding the operation in an attempt to destabilize and discredit the government. Vice-President Elias Jaua condemned the inappropriate behaviour of some members of the opposition outside the penitentiary as an insult to the Venezuelan people. “There they are, taking photos and giving false hugs to the poor women agonizing over their sons inside El Rodeo...Wretches! Don’t play with the Venezuelan people’s pain”, implored Jaua. Venezuelans gathered at 10 am last Saturday morning in Plaza Madariaga, Caracas, in order to manifest their support for the Bolivarian National Guard and their actions in El Rodeo.
As of today, the tense situation persists in El Rodeo.