A recent riot in a Venezuelan prison left approximately60 inmates dead and around 120 injured – and some in the international community calling for investigations. According to what has been established by reports, the violence erupted when prisoners attacked National Guard officers inspecting the Uribana prison. Sadly, this was only the latest episode an ongoing trend of recent incidents in prisons, in Venezuela and other Latin American states. These recurrences stress that in spite of the Latin American economic boom, the region’s prison systems are still dysfunctional.
Prior to the events in Uribana, there were (also in Venezuela) riots in the Yare I prison, in which 25 prisoners were killed. In February 2012, a fire broke out in theComayagua prison in Honduras, killing around 350 inmates – a direct result of the overcrowded state of the prison; it had been built for a maximum of 400 prisoners, but housed around 800. In September,129 inmates escaped through a tunnel from a Mexican prisonclose to the U.S. border. A similar situation occurred in December in Peru, when 27 underage criminals escaped from “Maranguita,”a youth detention center in Lima. (One of them, known as “Gringasho,” is a young hitman serving a six-year sentence for the murder of two people.)
Latin America’s recent and significant economic growth has not, it seems, eased this dysfunction at all. Problems in prison systems are an issue of special concern in Peru, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil: all have have significant internal security issues such as gangs, cartels or terrorist movements. These criminals can make up the majority of the penal population and become powerful enough to essentially run a prison to their liking, like those facilities inEl Salvador controlled by Mara gangs, which boast widescreen TVs with cable access. Or consider the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), a major prison gang that originated within Brazilian prisons: in 2006, major riots broke out in 18 prisons across the Brazilian state of Sao Paulobecause the government attempted to move PCC leaders to other jails. Not exactly surprising. PCC leaders are highly organized and in constant touch with their subordinates on the outside. (In one reported incident, aconference call between PCC memberslasted 10 hours.)
The Uribana riot was tragic, but its tragedy is not isolated. Regional governments spend significant parts of their defense budgets on internal security (the Peruvian government spent over $250 millionequipping their police force in 2012) but cannot seem to master either the process of rehabilitation or even simply trimming the power of these criminal movements. The guilty are sent to prisons which offer multiple opportunities to escape, to operate their enteprises more or less unmolested, or to suffer and die in riots and fires. Despite this, prison reform – needed in all areas of the penal system from infrastructure to security staffing to prisoner quality of life — is not a priority for any government. And it’s not just prisoners who are rebelling: In Argentina thesecurity staff of prisons in Buenos Airesprotested in October, demanding wage hikes; as did thegeneral prison staffers of the Lambayeque region in Peruin November (the tactic worked in Argentina but failed in Peru). The verdict? Prison dysfunction isn’t going away anytime soon.