Venezuela seizes control of gang-run prison with pool, disco

Thursday September 21 2023

Members of the Bolivarian National Guard arrive after authorities seized control of the Tocoron prison in Tocoron, Aragua State, Venezuela, on September 20, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Venezuela said Wednesday it had seized control of a prison from the hands of a powerful gang with international reach, in a major operation involving 11,000 members of its security forces.

The Tocoron prison had served as the Tren de Aragua gang's headquarters, where it had installed amenities such as a zoo, a pool and gambling rooms, according to an investigative journalist recently interviewed by AFP.

In a statement, the government congratulated law enforcement officers for regaining "total control" of the prison in the northern state of Aragua, adding the operation had "dismantled a centre of conspiracy and crime".

And in an official proclamation, President Nicolas Maduro praised "today's great success in the fight against criminal organizations."

After the government announced a complete evacuation of the jail, Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos told state broadcaster VTV that the inmates were being transferred to another facility.

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Dozens of relatives who had been living inside the prison with sentenced inmates gathered outside for news.

"I am waiting to hear where they are taking my husband... I was living in there, but they kicked us out," said Gladys Hernandez.

An AFP team saw security officers carrying motorcycles, televisions, air conditioners and microwaves out of the jail.

"That's ours!" shouted one of the women outside.

It appeared some inmates escaped during the operation, as a later government statement announced a "second phase" of the operation for the "search and capture" of "fugitive criminals".

Tren de Aragua, Venezuela's most powerful local gang, is involved in crime countrywide and has spread its tentacles to neighbouring nations.

According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, the gang has some 5,000 members.

It emerged a decade ago, and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution and extortion. Tren de Aragua is also connected to illegal gold mining.

The InSight Crime think tank says the gang is also a major player in migrant smuggling.

Risquez told AFP the gang "took advantage" of Venezuela's economic and political crises over the past decade to expand operations and is now present in at least eight other Latin American countries.

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She said Tocoron had been entirely in the hands of the gang.

"Inside, the men I have seen with guns are prisoners belonging to the organization. They guard the prison but not for the state."

She described the prison as a "hotel" for the gang leaders, with a bank, baseball field, a restaurant and even a disco.

"The gang's leader is Hector Guerrero Flores, who was serving a 17-year sentence in the prison for murder and drug trafficking," said Carlos Nieto, coordinator of A Window for Freedom, a prison rights NGO.

"Nevertheless, prior to the operation he appeared to come and go from Tocoron at will," said Risquez.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, the country's prisons are more than 50 percent overcrowded, with poor detention conditions.

Nieto said the raid was recognition of "the prison chaos we are experiencing and how negligent" the government had been in solving it.