Venezuelan Prison Bosses Wield Power Behind Bars and in the Streets
Prison gangs now rule swathes of the country
by TRISTAN CLAVEL
New photos show the privileged lifestyle enjoyed by Venezuela’s “pranes,” a reminder that these prison bosses have achieved widespread control over the country’s failing penitentiary system and are now projecting their power onto the streets.
Venezuelan journalist Pableysa Ostos of the news outlet Correo del Caroní published two photos of an infamous inmate, Franklin Paúl Hernández Quezada, alias “Franklyn Masacre.” In one photo he is working out in what seems to be a well-furnished gym, while the second one suggests he also has a dog inside the prison.
This is not the first example of the control pranes have over prison facilities in Venezuela. Recent media reports suggest prison bosses could be collecting between 17 million and 20 million bolivars by implementing an extortion system in which every inmate has to pay a fee in order to have access to facilities such as bathrooms.
At today’s black market exchange rate, that’s between $9,000 and $10,600.
The lack of government control has also allowed for repeated kidnappings of officials and the expansion of various criminal activities within the walls of Venezuela’s penitentiaries. According to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, as many as 46 prison officials were being held hostage in August 2016.
Venezuela El gimnasio que tenía uno de los pranes de la #PGV-"Franklin Masacre"-(dentro de la cárcel). También tenía un perro.
InSight Crime analysis
The criminal structures which have flourished within Venezuela’s prisons are now spilling onto the streets, as the powerful pranes have extended their influence through the creation of heavily-armed and vertically-integrated gangs known as “megabandas.”
At the root of the problem is the government’s poor prison policy and its failure to control and regulate the country’s penitentiaries and the criminality breeding within them, fed by a healthy illegal arms trafficking industry that has developed since former Pres. Hugo Chávez took power in 1999.
While the situation offers some surprising and amusing stories of prison parties and resort-like jails, it has also contributed to the death of 1,622 people in Venezuela’s penitentiary system since the inception of a government ministry to manage the prisons in 2011, which in reality manages very little.
The ministry was created to reform the prisons after high numbers of jail deaths and disturbances, a problem brought to a head when prisoners of the Rodeo II prison staged a standoff against government troops when they tried to enter the prison to search for weapons.
In recent years, the power of the pran bosses has expanded beyond prison walls. This recent criminal phenomenon of “megabandas” differs from ordinary street gangs because of their size (usually between 50 -100), activities (extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking), their territorial control and hierarchical organizational structure.
These groups, whose outside leadership is often linked to incarcerated pranes, have been growing since 2013 and wield significant firepower.
A recent InSight Crime investigation in Venezuela found that the megabandas now constitute a serious public security threat due to their array of criminal activities, and are the de facto law in swathes of territory across the country.
Megabandas also pose a threat to the government and are often involved in violent confrontations with state security forces. They represent a growing menace in a country that is suffering from a general breakdown in law and order amid a worsening economic and political crisis.
A 2013 government policy aimed at neutralizing them, called peace zones, has only made them stronger, and recent police and security force incursions designed to reverse that development have been deadly and heavily criticized.
The pranes and megabandas are both powerful criminal forces created in part by erroneous government policies, and they will prove difficult, if not impossible, for the Nicolás Maduro administration to resolve.