Venezuela Inmates Surrender after 27-Day Prison Standoff

Humberto Márquez

HAVANA TIMES, July 13 (IPS) — Worn down by hunger, thirst and a military cordon, more than 1,000 prisoners involved in a 27-day standoff with the authorities in the El Rodeo 2 prison, 30 km east of the Venezuelan capital, finally surrendered and handed over their weapons Wednesday.

“Fortunately we have managed to end the crisis peacefully,” Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami told reporters Wednesday. “We have complete control over the El Rodeo 2 installations, and we are now starting to search the facility for weapons.”

The mutiny by El Rodeo 2 inmates broke out when National Guard troops backed up by army paratroopers stormed the neighboring prison, El Rodeo 1, to put an end to fighting between rival gangs in which 22 prisoners were killed on Jun. 13, according to authorities.

One member of the National Guard was killed and more than 20 were injured, and one prisoner died, when the troops put down the riot in El Rodeo 1. After the security forces gained control over the prison, the press was shown a veritable arsenal of automatic weapons, rifles, shotguns, pistols, revolvers and hand grenades seized from the inmates.

Groups of inmates in El Rodeo 2 apparently had a similar number of weapons, or more, as well as abundant ammunition.

But after the troops were sent in to El Rodeo 1, the inmates of El Rodeo 2 refused to let them into the prison to confiscate weapons, alleging that the members of the National Guard had killed prisoners in the penitentiary next door and saying they feared similar reprisals.

“We were just fighting for our rights. We lost, but they (the authorities) lost too,” 20-year-old Yoifre Ruiz, one of the two leaders of the armed gang that orchestrated the uprising in El Rodeo 2, said when he was briefly filmed by the media.

For nearly a month, the government cordoned off El Rodeo 2, cut off the prison’s water, electricity and food supplies, and only began to let some provisions in 10 days ago, when the prisoners agreed to negotiate.

Reporters from private media outlets were kept one kilometer away from the prison, official spokespersons refused to give them information, and the families of the prisoners were told that if they spoke to the press, there would be no negotiations.

“We had to act with total respect for human rights but with a firm hand, to prevent bloodshed and to keep what was happening in El Rodeo 2 from spreading to the rest of the prisons in the country, because we would have had a national conflict on our hands,” said governing party lawmaker Diosdado Cabello, who acted as a mediator in the talks.

President Hugo Chavez, who is recovering from surgery in which a cancerous tumor was removed, tweeted “I congratulate all of you for the success of the operation at El Rodeo, an example of supreme respect for human rights. But enormous self-criticism is in order.”

The prisoners who gave themselves up received a medical check-up and treatment and personal hygiene products before they were put on buses to other prisons, while the National Guard prepared to move in to seize the inmates’ weapons.

Before they surrendered, the prisoners set fire to some of their belongings.

“It’s a good thing the conflict ended peacefully, without major problems,” Carlos Nieto, with the local human rights group Una Ventana a la Libertad, told IPS. “But that’s the only thing there is to celebrate, because this does not mark the end of the crisis in the prison system, since what happened in El Rodeo 1 and 2 could happen again in any of the country’s 34 prisons.”

Nieto pointed out that practically all of the prisons in Venezuela are controlled by inmates, while corrupt networks of National Guard troops – who are in charge of security outside the penitentiary walls – and prison guards allow weapons, drugs, alcohol, cell-phones and other prohibited elements to be smuggled in.

“I hope the government will reflect on this and take advantage of this opportunity to design plans that put an end to the overcrowding, lack of opportunities for prisoners to be active by working or studying, and weapons smuggling in the prisons, in consultation with the inmates and their families, because the five-year plan launched in 2006 to ‘humanize’ the prisons has been a complete failure,” the activist said.

More than 45,000 prisoners are crowded into 34 prisons meant to hold 14,500, according to the non-governmental Venezuelan Prison Observatory, and two-thirds of the inmates are still awaiting sentencing.

In the prisons of Venezuela, which was the first country in the world to abolish the death penalty for all crimes, in 1863, 476 prisoners were killed last year, and 121 in the first quarter of this year alone, mainly in shooting incidents between inmates.

In June, the government announced that it would create a special prisons ministry, but no minister has yet been appointed and the organizational structure of the new government body has not been put in place.

A shadow over the operation in El Rodeo 2 was the fact that the leader or “pran” of the prison gang that led the uprising, the 26-year-old Yorvis López, alias “Oriente”, has not appeared.

There were rumors that he and several accomplices had escaped with the equivalent of more than 400,000 dollars in cash in the possession of the prisoners.

Although his second-in-command, “Yoifre”, made a brief appearance before the cameras, no information about the arrest of “Oriente” was provided.

“If the so-called Oriente escaped, it couldn’t have been a conventional escape, in the middle of the military and police cordon. It must have been part of an agreement, and it would be a serious infraction by the authorities if they allowed him to escape as part of the negotiations,” said Nieto.