The last few days have been really tense both inside and outside of Uribana Prison, near the city of Barquisimeto, where I live. This was where the second-worst prison riot in Venezuelan history took place, back in early 2013.
The crisis started last week with the arrival of new warden Julio César Pérez, who decided to show his authoritah with a massive body search of all inmates. Relatives have complained that conditions in Uribana have worsened since, and that Pérez has threatened the personnel.
Prisons Minister Iris Varela publicly backed the new warden, saying these actions are to “…stop the privileges of a group of inmates”. Some of the inmates’ relatives denied Varela’s claims, and the protest continues.
At least 400 inmates have been transferred from Uribana to Tocorón Prison in Aragua (you know, the one with the nightclub), and the ones left behind started a hunger strike. Their list of demands include the dismissal of Pérez, and the overall improvement of their living conditions. Varela’s response on Twitter: There is no hunger strike, period.
And if you wonder why news about this are scarce, the National Guard has made impossible for journalists to do their job.
After the riot of 2013, the central government shut down the prison and moved all the inmates elsewhere. The jail went into a quick remodeling and was reopened three months later as “David Viloria Prison”, named after a GN sargent killed in the events. A second prison (called Fénix) opened nearby six months later.
But the more things change, the more stay the same: Basic conditions have not improved and every once in a while violence continues to sprout. How bad is the situation? Well, consider that Julio César Pérez is the third Uribana warden in three months.
The attempt to use Uribana as a model for a new penitentiary system appear to be falling short of expectations. But it isn’t much better elsewhere.
UPDATE # 1: The situation took a turn for the worse. At first, three inmates were declared dead at the Barquisimeto Central Hospital for an alleged overdose. Then, the number increased to thirteen. Apparently, some inmates took a combination of a drug named Rivotril and alcohol in order to call the authorities’ attention. The Prison Ministry confirmed this in a statement, in which they informed that at least 145 inmates were treated for intoxication.
UPDATE # 2: NGO Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP) told AFP that the number of dead has risen to 19 and has serious doubts over the official version of the events. Radio Fe y Alegria is reporting at least 24 dead so far. Another 35 inmates are in critical condition and 12 are in coma. Also, they report that four of the 400 inmates transferred last weekend to Tocoron Prison died last night.
UPDATE # 3: The most recent report: 25 dead, 96 still hospitalized for intoxication.