The reality of life behind bars will always fascinate and intrigue those who have never experienced it first hand; yet survival in Latin America’s jails is scarcely believable even for those who have.
In 2004, Australian writer Rusty Young collaborated with convicted British drug smuggler Thomas McFadden – an inmate at La Paz’s infamous San Pedro prison – to write Marching Powder, exposing the bizarre intricacies of life in the jail.
For many whose eyes were opened to prison culture, the strangest aspect of the pair’s portrayal of San Pedro life was its apparent normality. The prison boasted virtually everything one would expect to enjoy in the outside world, including a fully-functioning property ladder and labor market.
Of course, the cornerstone of South America’s prison economics is a thriving illicit drugs trade. Young and McFadden describe San Pedro as a cocaine ‘factory’, with pre-arranged operations running the manufactured drugs away from the production line – and on from there to the lucrative European and North American markets.
However, prison culture in Venezuela takes these peculiarities to another level.
Roughly 100km southwest of the capital, Caracas, is the Centro Penitenciario de Aragua – universally known as Tocorón. An organ of the Venezuelan state and yet virtually outside of the rule of law, Tocorón’s social order is presided over by its ‘pran’ (an inmate and self-appointed leader), who goes by the name of ‘El Niño Guerrero‘ (The Warrior Child).
Soldiers guard the facility’s entrances, but almost anything goes within its walls, where the pran collects between 50 and 100 bolívares per week (US$8-16) from inmates as a contribution to “the cause”; affording them a degree of protection.
In September 2010, an eight-hour gun battle between rival gangs left at least 10 prisoners dead in Tocorón. The touch paper had been lit the week before with the murder of a gang leader who controlled one area of the jail. Inmates used automatic weapons and hand grenades illicitly smuggled onto the premises in the fighting.
In the aftermath of the riot, the Venezuelan military raided the prison and exposed the multitude of institutions that had taken root and thrived in Tocorón in the state’s absence. They found several small restaurants, three bars, three cock-fighting rings, an illegal horse-race betting operation, motocross course, a yard with fifty pigs and a children’s playground.
Most intriguing of all is the story of the Tokio nightclub located within the prison walls, which attracts inmates and visitors alike to its extravagant parties. Opening on Wednesdays and at weekends to coincide with visiting hours – and even attracting performers from Colombia for its events – it sells contraband beer and whisky.
In 2012, 5,000 revellers came to Tokio’s weekend-long Mother’s Day celebration, which cost an estimated US$93,000 to organize and was even advertised on local radio. A raffle was even held, drawing in patrons with prizes including a new washing machine and 42-inch plasma television.
In 2013, inmates at the El Rodeo I prison in Guatitre, on the outskirts of Caracas, opened their own nightclub with giant screens, a smoke machine, speakers and strippers. The jail’s pranes even have their own VIP balcony.
Indeed, the San Antonio penitentiary facility on Margarita Island has something of a reputation as a “party prison”. A New York Times journalist who visited the island reported that the 130 prisoners who populate the women’s annex mingle freely with the male prisoners, a stall called McLandro’s sells food to the inmates and reggaetón music blares day and night. The prison also has four swimming pools.
Although inmates enjoy many luxuries not usually associated with life behind bars, Venezuela’s jails are no safe place to live. The prison system is desperately oversubscribed; the overall capacity of 15,000 has long since been exceeded and estimates say that there are now more than 40,000 prisoners in Venezuela.
With crime rates in Venezuela still scaling disastrous heights in the midst of a political and social crisis, more attention than ever will be placed upon its failing prison system. It may well be that Venezuela’s jails have been left to their own devices for too long; if nothing else the development of institutions such as nightclubs in the jails are symptoms of this unregulated autonomy.
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