Venezuela Gang controlled prison taken over by authorities

Venezuela: Gang-controlled prison taken over by authorities

Venezuelan authorities said Wednesday they had regained control of a prison that was entirely under gang control after deploying more than 11,000 security force members in the early hours of the morning.

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The Tocoron prison in Aragua (north-central) was controlled by the Tren de Aragua gang, which spread its tentacles throughout Venezuela and several Latin American countries.

According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, recently interviewed by AFP, police have so far stayed out.

“Inside, the men with guns I saw were prisoners of the organization. They are the ones who guard the prison, but not for the state (…) the prisoners ride motorcycles, they have weapons,” she explained in prison.

For the “inmates”, including the head of the Tren de Aragua, Hector Guerrero Flores, known as “Niño Guerrero” (Child Warrior), the Tocoron prison is, according to the journalist, “like a hotel” with a swimming pool, a zoo, betting shops, illegal immigrants , a bank, a baseball field, a restaurant and even a nightclub.

Hector Guerrero Flores, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for murder and drug trafficking, among other crimes, is officially incarcerated but appeared to be able to go in and out of prison at will, according to Ms. Risquez.

In a press release, the Venezuelan government welcomed the “successful” operation and “the orderly and immediate restoration of order and absolute control of the Tocoron prison.”

“A conspiracy and crime facility used by an international criminal network has been dismantled,” it said, without specifying whether there were any injuries or whether prisoners had to be transferred to other prisons.

Earlier in the morning, the Ministry of Information announced the launch of the operation “to dismantle and end the organized crime gangs and other criminal networks operating from Tocoron Penitentiary,” with the deployment of “more than 11,000 operational soldiers.” and restore the dignity of the national penal system.

The Tren de Aragua, which reportedly numbers around 5,000 criminals and takes its name from the region, emerged in 2014 and carried out “classic” mafia activities: kidnappings, robberies, drugs, prostitution, extortion. It has expanded its influence into other activities, some of which are even legal, but also into gold panning and illegal mining in a country that has one of the largest gold reserves in the world.

According to Ms. Risquez, the gang also took advantage of the crisis that Venezuela has been experiencing since 2013 to cross borders and establish themselves in at least “eight other Latin American countries.”

According to the Private Observatory of Venezuelan Prisons (OVP), the country’s prisons are more than 50% overcrowded and there are reports of poor prison conditions.