Prison Violence and Security in Latin America

The second paragraph of a January 27 article in Venezuelan daily El Universal entitled “Riot leaves at least 7 dead and 17 wounded in La Planta” announces that “a little after 9 this morning, inmates in the La Planta prison, mainly in cell blocks 1, 2 and 3, initiated a shootout. Meanwhile the National Guard responded with shots from above.” The fact that the Caracas prison inmates have obtained materials with which to initiate a shootout suggests that the National Guard, tasked with prison security, may have had more to do with the scene than simply responding from above—something additionally suggested by the reaction of prisoners’ wives outside the complex to the arrival of more troops:

“More than 60 members of the National Guard deployed around the penitentiary with antiriot gear but the inmates’ wives would not permit them to enter the premises and instead threw rocks at [them] while screaming ‘Assassins of the people’ and ‘You will not go in.’”

The El Universal article also describes the evacuation of part of the Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) building due to proximity to the shootout, although it fails to propose such proximities as a potential way to get rid once and for all of the media outlet, whose role in the 2002 coup against Chávez the government had cited as one reason not to renew its broadcast license. As for ways to get rid of other sectors of the Latin American population, Maria Luisa Borjas—former chief of internal affairs for the Honduran police force —commented in a November 2009 interview that “in Honduras being young is a crime.”

According to Borjas, one manifestation of the stigmatization of youth was the killing of a total of 3,000 young people during the presidency of Ricardo Maduro, predecessor of the ousted Mel Zelaya, a sum presumably aided by the ease of passing off exterminated youth as gang members. Óscar Álvarez, Minister of Public Security under Maduro—a position which did not prevent him, Borjas argued, from affiliation with a business that sold “security items”—has incidentally resurfaced in the same post in the administration of Pepe Lobo, who assumed power last month in legitimization of the coup against Zelaya. Lobo’s history as a proponent of the death penalty is meanwhile perhaps what compelled Borjas to refer to his post-coup calls for peace among Hondurans as the behavior of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” with additional evidence such as that the surname Lobo means “wolf” in Spanish and that the torture, disappearance, and assassination of members of the anti-coup resistance continues under his mandate.

Attempts at creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by criminalizing resistance members has not, however, prompted them to engage in criminal behavior, just as attempts at creating self-fulfilling prophecies in Haiti have been thwarted by the failure of the Haitian populace to succumb to the notion that escapees from a collapsed prison pose a greater danger to continued existence than U.S. blocking of aid delivery to people without food and shelter. The potential dangers of inundating nations with weapons rather than basic necessities can meanwhile be observed not only in foreign military presence in Port-au-Prince but also in such phenomena as rundown roadside dining establishments in Honduras advising consumers of alcohol to check their firearms at the door.

As for locations where visitors are not always advised to check their weapons at the door, a young man named Jackson from a marginal neighborhood in Caracas recently showed me a video on his mobile phone of a Venezuelan prison inmate holding the decapitated head of another inmate, with other dismembered bodies lying nearby. Jackson’s father, a beverage vendor, announced that the Venezuelan population had become desensitized to violence, although it turned out he was referring not to the fact that his son was viewing decapitated heads on his cell phone but rather that he himself was no longer bothered when someone was shot down the street from his shop, which additionally boasted a pair of bullet holes in the façade.

In his book Los deliberantes about the formation of the armed forces in Honduras, political analyst and former Honduran Congress member Matías Funes argues that the bodies of common criminals began to appear in Honduran streets in the 1980s as part of an effort to “accustom the populace to coexisting with violence” and to interpret it as part of the landscape. According to a Tegucigalpa security guard last November, coexistence had gradually turned into dependence, and the majority of his acquaintances ranked the daily newspapers based on the quantity and quality of homicide photos contained therein; Jackson confirmed that decapitators were not the only demographic group reliant on violence, and suggested that the lack of security within the Venezuelan prison system was a means of encouraging prisoners to eliminate one another.

As for the elimination of prospective forces for social change, this appears to be one of the objectives of the criminalization of youth—the sustainable nature of which business is ensured by the fact that young people constitute an inexhaustible resource.

Belen Fernandez has been reporting from Honduras since July. Her book Coffee with Hezbollah, a political travelogue based on a hitchhiking trip through Lebanon conducted in the aftermath of the 2006 war, is now available. She can be reached at