Venezuela Group Calls for Inquiry into Prison Deaths

Phil Gunson
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

CARACAS -- Prison rights activists in Venezuela on Monday demanded an inquiry into the deaths of six inmates in a bloody shoot-out at a jail near Caracas, part of the most violent prison system in the hemisphere. Humberto Prado, coordinator of Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), a rights group, said the organization had already referred the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a branch of the Organization of American States. "The state takes no measures to prevent these situations," Prado said, adding that the Los Teques prison was built to house 350 and currently holds more than 1,333, of whom 80 percent are awaiting trial.

Authorities have given few details of the incident, which happened Sunday during visiting hours at a prison in Los Teques, 15 miles from Caracas. The Venezuelan interior ministry, which is responsible for prisons, did not respond to The Miami Herald's request for information. So far, it has only said there was a battle between inmates from two different wings. Local press reports suggest the fight occurred during a wild party on the prison roof, which had begun the night before. Two of those involved were women, who had apparently been hired to spend the night with prisoners.

The ministry's director of prison services, Consuelo Cerrada, told a government radio station that her department "regretted the situation." "The Bolivarian government will not rest," she said, until it had "transformed our penal establishments .. so as to create the `new man.'" But Cerrada seemed to blame inmates and their relatives for the violence. "We call on the prisoners not to let chaos and disorder into the country's penal system," she said. Venezuelan jails have a history of violence.

On average, more than one inmate dies violently every day. Weapons ranging from handguns to assault rifles and grenades -- as well as a variety of drugs -- can all be obtained by prisoners, for a price. A "humanization" program, first announced five years ago and reiterated at regular intervals, has not curbed the violence. On average, each of the last three years has seen 428 killings, according to figures from the Prison Observatory. One of the problems is chronic overcrowding. The country's 31 penal establishments were built to house just 14,000 prisoners. They now hold some 38,000, a figure that has risen by more than 5,000 in the past few months alone, according to prison activists. Although the government promised, as part of its "humanization" program, to build 15 new jails between 2006 and 2012, it has so far only managed the partial opening of two.

More than three-quarters of prisoners have not even been sentenced, but are awaiting trial. So serious are the delays in criminal proceedings that inmates of a dozen jails have been staging what they call ``judicial disobedience'' for the past month. The prisoners and their relatives are demanding that the process be sped up. Special mobile courts have now been set up in several jails, but relatives protested again Monday outside the supreme court building in Caracas, demanding that the remainder be given the same treatment. Despite its promises to clean up the prisons, the Venezuelan government treats prison rights activists as subversives. "Authorities have harassed and intimidated civil society groups that speak out about prison conditions," noted the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a 2008 report on President Hugo Chávez's decade in power.

One activist -- Carlos Nieto of the rights group Window to Freedom -- complained of death threats and a house visit by government agents who "issued veiled threats to his nine-month-old nephew." The government has ignored a ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Court to take measures to protect him. "Inmates effectively control prisons, overwhelming the scant number of security guards (and the) system fails to provide minimum standards of hygiene, medical care and internal order," Human Rights Watch said. Even Chávez himself, the report noted, has described his country's prisons as "an inferno." Relatives of surviving prisoners at Los Teques fear for their lives, rights officials said. Prado said that almost 50 prisoners have died this year in multiple killings. "The fact that weapons are allowed into the jails," he said, "suggests that the state wants prisoners to kill each other."