On Friday January 25 an attempt by the National Guard to occupy and search the Uribana prison in Lara state resulted in 55 deaths (including one National Guardsman and two visiting evangelical pastors) and 88 injured.

The local newspaper in Lara state said the authorities promised that the procedure would take place peacefully. However, the first shots were heard at 10:05 AM, and at 10:30 the first ambulance with victims arrived at the local hospital. The firefight lasted several more hours and still today the authorities said they did not have full control of the prison.

This is the fourth occurrence of such violence in less than two years (see our posts from last July here and here). In June and July 2011 a standoff at El Rodeo prison outside of Caracas left at least 25 dead (family members say 100 are still unaccounted for). In May 2012, a standoff between prisoners and authorities in La Planta prison in Caracas left at least 9 dead. And in June 2012 a prison conflict in Merida left 17 dead. What is different in this case is simply the number of dead. That said, at least in the El Rodeo and La Planta conflicts, family members and activists suggest that many more are still unaccounted for so the number of dead in those cases cannot be considered final.

Uribana opened in 1999 as a model prison but has succumbed to the same conditions of overcrowding and prisoner’s control common in the rest of Venezuela´s penitentiary system. Indeed Uribana has been for years a show case of problems typical of prison life in the country. It has been constantly made headlines with stories of tunnels, violent conflict between pranes (prison leaders), wild prisoner’s parties and “Roman Coliseum” style gladiator fights between prisoners.

In 2007 the Interamerican Court for Human Rights put forth a sentence regarding the Uribana Prison demanding that the Venezuela government ensure the safety of prisoners as well as disarm the prisoner population.

In a press release, the prisoner rights NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones (OVP) said “while it is true that search and seizures are necessary to ensure adequate conditions in line with international standards, in our view the procedure in the Uribana Prison was not adequately coordinated nor carried out by expert personnel. They used disproportionate force.” OVP emphasized the need for proper training of security forces assigned to prisons in order to avoid further violence. They pointed out that in a 2006 sentence the Interamerican Court demanded that the Venezuelan government minimize the use of lethal force in prisons and develop clear legal norms for it.

Criticizing Media Coverage

As with previous cases of prison violence, the government has pointed the finger at the media. At 3:25 pm on Friday Penitentiary Minister Iris Valera appeared on TV to read a statement saying that a procedure at Uribana aimed at disarming the prisoners had become necessary as her office had received, in the previous 48 hours, information about prisoner infighting. She said the operation was kept secret “for obvious reasons,” and that they were surprised when Globovisión and local newspaper El Impulso were publicizing the operation. She accused them of being “detonators of violence.”

Globovisión responded today by putting a video up on its webpage, showing the Director of Uribana Prison, Nelson Bracca announcing the operation the day before. A note from official news agency Agencia Venezolana de Noticias also suggested that the operation had been announced beforehand.

In 2011 Globovision was fined by the National Telecommunications Council for its coverage of violent incidents at the Rodeo prison that year. The channel had been accused of “generating distress” when one of its reporters declared that the National Guard was “massacring the prisoners.”

Investigation and Follow-up

In a nationally televised address in the early AM, Vice-president Nicolas Maduro announced an investigation and declared that the incident had been the result of a “tragic confusion,” but insisted that the process of retaking control of the prisons “will continue because prisons have to be governed by the law.” While making brief mention of media sensationalism, warning the opposition to not take advantage of the situation and blaming capitalism for crime and insecurity, his address was actually notable for assuming responsibility in terms quite different from Varela’s declarations.

In our view, these operations use militarized procedures to address what is essentially an administrative problem, and will likely continue to cause violence. The government first needs to address issues of prison administration, professionalize the guard staff, address overcrowding by actually bringing prisoners to trial (over half are on pretrial detention), and block cell phone connections. Until they address these problems, prison mafias will continue to run lucrative crime networks and stockpile arms regardless of how many search and seizures are carried out.

Today Varela announced that the Uribana Prison would be completely evacuated with the prisoners taken to other facilities. This is a strategy long used by Venezuelan authorities—most notably when then Mayor Antonio Ledezma dynamited the Reten de Catia prison on television—as if the problem had to do with the actual prison buildings. But it too has proven ineffective time and again as it simply leads to more overcrowding and the transfer of existing problems to new spaces.