This is the third in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written Spring Quarter 2017 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas, taught by Lynn Holland.
Venezuela’s penal system ranks among the worst in the world. According to a report by The Economist (2012), from 2004-2008, prison killings resulted in more than 400 inmate deaths annually, with figures on the rise in 2012 to nearly 600. “In other words, a Venezuelan is at least 20 times more likely to be murdered in jail than on the streets, despite a steep climb in the country’s overall murder rate over the past decade” (The Economist 2012). The report continues, “In Venezuela the only functions performed by prison guards are perimeter security, a daily headcount and the transfer of prisoners to court. Whereas relatives are submitted to humiliating strip searches at visiting time, it is no secret that the guns, drugs, mobile phones and other items that are available on the inside are trafficked by the national guard, which is responsible for perimeter security” (The Economist 2012).
The poor and inefficient management of prison systems does little to disrupt the activity of organized crime and illicit networks in Venezuela. Given the lack of oversight and relatively lax controls over inmates, organizational leaders are often able to continue managing their business operations from behind bars.
“The most obvious intersection of organized crime and the state can be seen in the penal system, Cedeno said. The study lays out how gang leaders, called pranes, run sophisticated business enterprises – which include communication networks, front companies, and hired assassins – from the jails. The phenomenon helps explain why Venezuela’s jails are so deadly, with some 500 inmate murders per year and thousands more hurt…” (Wyss 2015).
The unruly atmosphere which characterizes the Venezuelan prison system is clearly illuminated in a 2017 report released by Human Rights Watch. The organization tells the story of a recent uncovering of a mass grave located within a prison in Venezuela. While the facility was undergoing infrastructure updates, construction workers uncovered a grave with more than one dozen bodies, a number of which had been beheaded. The Venezuelan government had released no official documentation about the whereabouts of the massacred individuals, revealing the terrifyingly limited oversight exercised by the government with respect to protecting the rights of inmates (Human Rights Watch 2017). In such an environment, it is not surprising that the penal system would have limited impact on curtailing illicit activity or providing rehabilitative services for offenders, thereby largely precluding the possibility of inmates entering society with the tools and resources necessary for a successful reintegration.
What can account for the toleration of violence, abuse, and neglect in Venezuela’s prison system? Rather than attempting to answer this question outright, I seek clues in the following discussion of the political and social conditions of this country. These pertain particularly to the incoherence of the state, the spread of illicit market activity, and the existence of a range of armed groups in Venezuela.
Incoherence of the State
First, Venezuela is unique (unfortunately) with respect to its particularly high levels of violence, which pervade society including the prisons. For example, in 2012, the homicide rate in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, was more than twenty times higher than the global average. Furthermore, in the same year, five of Venezuela’s cities made the list of the world’s fifty most violent cities (Tremaria 2016). What explains such high levels of violence in Venezuela?
Tremaria (2016) notes a paradox at the heart of such high crime rates; namely, the fact that Bolivarianism – the mode of socialism practiced by the Chávez, and now Maduro, regime – is meant to decrease social inequality and thereby produce a more just, equitable, and peaceful society for all. Such efforts at more equitable economic distribution have come at the expense, however, of a disruption of social life and extremely heightened political polarization. In short, the Chavismo system has created clear pro and anti-Chavez groups, thereby generating evermore stark class conflict. “Today, Caracas is not only divided along the lines of socio-economic strata, but also along political allegiances, with zones of violent clashes between supporters and opponents” (Tremaria 2016: 70). While such political polarization has certainly affected social relations in Venezuela, the sweeping changes also affect public policy and security provision by the state.
In fact, the lack of cohesion among both the state and criminal organizations in Venezuela is another distinguishing aspect of illicit markets and criminal activity in the country. “Political polarization has led to an institutional fragmentation of long-standing political alliances, incompetence, and incapacity to establish a coordinated security policy addressing the problem of urban violence across different levels of governance and all Caracas municipalities” (Tremaria 2016: 71). Tremaria goes on to note that twelve ministers of the interior were appointed during Chávez’s fourteen-year rule, while twenty-two plans for citizen security were launched. Clearly, the country lacks a cohesive long-term strategy for realizing a more robust and effective criminal justice system. This lack of cohesion and coordinated policy action may be a result of diminished state capacity or incapable civil servants, but it may also be – at least partly – due to government reluctance to enact strict overhauls of the criminal justice and public security systems.
Corruption within the Venezuelan civil service is an endemic problem (Coronel 1996), which likely plays a role in the dire failings of the prison system. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that nearly twenty percent of the active Venezuelan workforce is employed by the government as part of the socialist government’s agenda (162). Despite these challenges, neither the state bureaucracy nor the judiciary has taken sufficient steps to address high rates of corruption and malfeasance on the part of government employees. Coronel (1996) highlights the fact that only a handful of high profile corruption cases have resulted in jail time for offenders, despite the fact that all actors are aware of the pervasiveness of corruption among government employees. As noted by Naím (2012),
“Owing in part to such ties [between criminal organizations and government officials], the cocaine business has flourished in Venezuela in recent years, and the country now supplies more than half of all cocaine shipments to Europe…And the drug trade is not the only illicit activity that has flourished in Venezuela’s era of state-sanctioned crime: the country has also become a base of operations for human trafficking, money laundering, counterfeiting, weapons smuggling, and the trade in contraband oil.”
While the ubiquity of corruption clearly brings with it a number of economic and efficiency costs, it also results in a crisis of legitimacy between the state and its populace. A history of corruption, coupled with impunity for many offenders, erodes trust in political institutions and disrupts the government’s ability to win public support for broader reforms (Coronel 1996). The results are self-reinforcing in that a lack of legitimacy only leads to a greater degree of mistrust on behalf of citizens. Not surprisingly, widespread corruption and a severe lack of government accountability and legitimacy creates an environment in which illicit activity is allowed to flourish.
Furthermore, the judiciary in Venezuela serves largely as a tool of the ruling party and its President, Nicolas Maduro. The erosion of an institutionalized and objective rule of law dismantles norms which help to govern social and political life, thereby creating both opportunities and incentives for individuals and groups to pursue their desired objectives through extralegal means (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia 2016).
“The problem is compounded in the justice system. According to the Organization of American States, Venezuela has far fewer prosecutors – 2.47 per every 100,000 inhabitants – than a country of its size requires. It also has only 6.86 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, far fewer than it should have, and way below the norm on the continent. In comparison, Chile, a less violent country, has 50.41 judges per 100,000 inhabitants. And the few judges that the country does have faced enormous pressures to keep people out of jail, since Venezuela has one of the most overcrowded, and hence violent, prison systems in the world” (Nagel 2014: 83).
Armed Groups of Different Persuasions
The Venezuelan state often finds itself in direct confrontation with a number of armed groups of various orientations. The activities of these different groups produce a high rate of uncontrolled violence that may contribute to the capacity of gangs both within and outside of the prison system while simultaneously weakening of the role of the state.
One of the most long-standing groups is the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), a leftist guerrilla organization which emerged in the early 1990s as a counterforce to the potential influence of right-wing Colombian paramilitaries (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium). Given that Colombia and Venezuela share a border of over 2,000 kilometers, it is not surprising that Colombian paramilitary groups such as the FARC and ELN would make inroads in Venezuela, strategically using the territory as a safe haven outside the purview of the Colombian government (Insight Crime 2016). Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) maintained a complicated relationship with the FARC, cooperating with the group solely when it was to his own benefit. For the FARC, Venezuela provided strategic locations to develop and coordinate plans outside the watchful eye of the Colombian state, particularly when during periods of heightened pressure against FARC activities. For Chávez, the FARC provided a strategic ally against perceived external threats from alternative groups (BBC 2011).
Rebel and guerilla groups in Venezuela differ from other forms of organized violence in the country because they are predominantly located in rural areas and rarely engage directly in violent activity in larger urban areas. Furthermore, these groups are not directly targeted for disarmament and demobilization by the state given the government’s ability to manipulate them for its own purposes. Because guerrilla organizations do not directly challenge the authority of the state, their presence is tolerated and often exploited to the regime’s benefit.
Finally, Venezuela possesses a number of highly localized street gangs, particularly in urban centers such as Caracas. In contrast to large-scale cartel organizations in Mexico or Colombia, these groups are more similar to gang-based organizations such as MS-13 in El Salvador. They often consist of a just few dozen individuals seeking to assert control over a small geographical area, such as a few city blocks (Grillo and Benezra 2016). The groups, along with paramilitaries, often provide security services in the country’s poorly patrolled barrios, areas in which the country’s high levels of homicide are disproportionately located (Pardo 2016). Due to their control of local geographies, local gangs in Venezuela are often contracted by larger criminal organizations to facilitate smuggling or trafficking through their respective areas (InSight Crime 2016).
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Today, as popular protests mount in the streets, the Maduro regime continues its efforts to retain control over the vast state apparatus. The social and economic strain placed on the country provides prime breeding ground for illicit activity among the country’s wide range of informal criminal actors and armed groups. Similarly, high levels of social unrest, economic insecurity, and increasingly violent police tactics generate more conducive conditions for the proliferation of localized armed gangs and criminal actors. Meanwhile, the country’s neglected prison system continues to operate under the control of prison gangs to the detriment of all who remain incarcerated.
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