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Families clashed with security forces outside the police station in Valencia, Venezuela, where nearly 70 prisoners died in a March 28 fire. AP Photo/Juan Carlos Hernandez

Behind the scenes of Venezuela’s deadly prison fire

A fire killed scores of inmates after a riot in a Venezuelan jail in the early morning hours of March 28. Sixty-six detainees died in the flames, as did two female visitors.

The incident was horrifying, but it was not a surprise for those familiar with the state of the country’s prison system.

Prison violence has long been common in Venezuela. In 1992 at least 63 inmates were killed in the Retén de Catia prison, which was later demolished after Pope John Paul II visited and called for more humane living conditions. In 1994, 108 people died in a jailhouse riot in the state of Zulia. And in 1996, 29 inmates were burned alive when the National Guard set fire to La Planta prison in Caracas.

Between 2012 and 2017 alone, 135 people were killed in four different prison riots across Venezuela.

Last month’s deadly fire is yet another tragedy. But it also differs from past incidents in critical ways.

Much of the media coverage of the incident, both inside and outside of Venezuela, portrays the riot and ensuing fire as the outcome of the chaos and lawlessness that rules Venezuelan prisons. But our research on the country’s criminal justice system reveals that the story behind the violence is more complicated.

Mass incarceration, Venezuela style

The main driver behind Venezuela’s rising prison violence is overcrowding.

Incarceration levels in the country rose dramatically during the 1990s. Under President Hugo Chávez, who governed Venezuela from 1999 to 2013, this trend accelerated – despite his progressive rhetoric about eliminating harsh sentencing.

In 1996, 120 of every 100,000 citizens were behind bars Today, 55,000 people – that’s 159 of every 100,000 Venezuelans – are in jail.

The country’s prison system was designed to hold, at most, 20,000. As a result, short-term detention centers in police stations have swelled with the inmate overflow. Violence has become more frequent systemwide.

According to Una Ventana a la Libertad, a Venezuelan prison watchdog group, about 45,000 people are currently locked up in overcrowded, makeshift jails in 500 police stations nationwide.

That’s where the deadly March 28 fire broke out: not in a prison but in a Carabobo State police station, where 200 men were detained.

Venezuela’s penal code mandates that police may only keep people who’ve been arrested in these “calabozos,” or temporary holding cells, for up to 48 hours. After that, prisoners must be presented before a judge, who will either release them or transfer them to a long-term facility like a jail to await trial.

In practice, though, detainees are frequently sent back to police stations before their court date. Even before the 2015 economic crisis that has plunged Venezuela into disarray, the wait could be years. Today, the judicial system moves even more slowly, in part because of problems transporting prisoners between jail and court.

Fully 50 percent of people incarcerated in Venezuela have been arrested but not convicted of a crime. That population includes the 66 prisoners who perished in the March 28 fire.

Venezuela’s Reten de Catia prison was shut down after Pope John Paul II criticized the inhumane living conditions on a 1996 visit to the facility. AP Photo/Rodolfo Benitez

What happened at Carabobo police station

There are different accounts of how the upheaval at the Carabobo police state began, depending on the source.

According to state police, detainees in the makeshift jail revolted early on March 28, forcing police to enter the detention area and put down the riot. Prisoners then set their mattresses on fire, officials say, hoping to escape from the violence.

But the interviews we recently conducted with officials at the Venezuelan attorney general’s office, national police, the Bello Monte morgue and the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – Venezuela’s FBI – tell a more complicated story.

These officials, who wish to remain anonymous because this information is not public and they fear political retribution, say the deadly riot occurred because the delicate social order that structures jailhouse life in Venezuela broke down.

Venezuelan jails are often portrayed as lawless places, and it is true that the government long ago ceded control over many prisons to gang leaders inside them.

But these facilities do have a governance structure – it’s just not enforced by the state. Gang leaders within prisons and detention centers – sometimes referred to as a “pran” or “pranato” – informally control what goes on inside.

Venezuelan prison guards and police officers are not only aware of this system – they are complicit in it. Guards and officers smuggle guns and drugs into prisons and jails, which gangs use to consolidate their power. In exchange for facilitating this informal economy, officials are paid a “vacuna,” or bribe.

The official police version of events in the Carabobo police station – which is cited in stories from the BBC, USA Today, Reuters and local media outlets – ignores this symbiotic relationship. So does The New York Times, which reported that the deadly fire was started after gangs, who were holding a party in an overcrowded jail, fought with the guards who tried to break it up.

Orderly chaos breaks down

We asked our official sources, who agreed to speak without attribution, what really happened on March 28. Their accounts differ slightly, citing as causes of the violence both police officers’ anger over unpaid “vacunas” and gang fights over illicit jailhouse economies.

But they all concur that a breakdown in the illicit relationship between gangs and jail officials was the catalyst – either direct or indirect – of the violence, not spontaneous prisoner revolt.

Everyone we spoke with told us that just before 6 a.m., armed officers entered the overcrowded detention center. Within a half hour, concerned mothers, responding to phone calls from detainees who said they were under attack, began arriving at the station.

The Bello Monte morgue – the government forensic center in Caracas where the official autopsies were performed – stated that many of those who died had also been shot or stabbed before they burned in the fire.

Family members waited for news outside the Carabobo police station for hours as fire consumed the makeshift jail inside. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

At around 6 a.m., police allegedly tried to quell the riot with tear gas. Some mattresses caught fire, and the blaze spread across the locked holding cells.

Family members stood outside of the burning police station for hours, listening to explosions and gunfire until firefighters arrived at about 9:30 a.m. Some would wait over 24 hours to learn whether their incarcerated son, grandson, cousin or nephew was a casualty of the conflict.

On March 31, five Carabobo police officers, including the head of the police station, were arrested and accused of unspecified “responsibility for the tragic acts that caused the death of 68 citizens” in the Carabobo detention center.

But those who lost their loved ones may never know the whole truth of what happened behind those bars.

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