Venezuela: Anarchy in a prison reflects general weakness of institutions and rule of law

(Brooklyn, New York City)  This is my first blog here.  It will be short and rather disturbing.

The topic is the decline of institutions, especially state institutions, and of the rule of law in Venezuela.  I study especially the oil sector and the national oil company, PDVSA, and its relation to the rest of society.  It is not easy to see inside PDVSA, but here we have a rare window into the state of affairs in another Venezuelan state institution: a prison.

A Venezuelan friend sent me this video link  to the NY Times story filed by Simon Romero about the prison on Margareta Island.  

In passing this on to me, she drew two larger societal lessons from this report:

  • When thre is no the rule of law someone will surely impose rules (in this prison, it is El Conejo)
  • This lack of a rule of law–and of the institutions it requires–has fostered a culture of anarchy in personal life, in all social classes
  • I would add that this “anarchy” undermines trust between not only the state and citizens, but between individuals as well.  It undermines civil society and personal life.  It is part of what makes everyday life often so very wearing in Venezuela, despite the beautiful natural surroundings.

For example, take the insecurity and violence that citizens face. Venezuela appears to have the highest national homicide rate inthe Western Hemisphere,  about 75 per 100,000 persons are now murdered annually according to Roberto  Briceño-Leon, director of the Venezuelan Observatory on Crime, and professor at Oxford U. and UCV in Caracas.  This rate has shot up since 2002.  I have been reading a collection of essays by Venezuelan experts edited by Professor Briceño-Leon et al,  Inseguridad y Violencia en Venezuela, Informe 2008, and I will soon post notes and commentaries on this serious sociological work.  I must say, in a society where there is such extreme stress on individual lives, it is understandable for people to despair and of course this increases tension and polarization between and within all social classes.  To break out of these cycles it is necessary not only for the experts, but for civil society at all levels to reach a consensus on what can be done, and to support politicians who have the will and stamina to implement these policies over the long run.  Anyone who does not believe that Venezuela’s demoralizing decline of the rule of law and institutions, and the growth in anarchy this reinforces for everyone can be reversed, needs only look at neighboring Colombia, where a similar crisis in the 1980s and 90s has now been decisively reversed.    Briceño-Leon draws important lessons from Colombia´s experience for Venezuela, and I promise to discuss these here soon.


One response to “Venezuela: Anarchy in a prison reflects general weakness of institutions and rule of law

  1. Robert Trisciuzzi

    This story is a contrast with the following Associated Press article on rioting in a Venezuelan prison–and the reports on how the authorities have handled it. Either way, the dysfunction in the Venezuelan penal system is clearly a matter of the “culture of anarchy” cited above.
    ‘Weapons of war’ used on Venezuela inmates?
    Prisoners claim 17 have been killed as siege enters day five
    GUATIRE, Venezuela — National Guard troops fired tear gas at a prison as they tried to dislodge a group of heavily armed inmates who have now staved off attempts to retake control for five days.

    Troops escorted 36 inmates from cellblocks inside the Rodeo II prison to areas that are no longer controlled by rebellious prisoners, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami told state television. At least 11 of the inmates were wounded, he said.

    National Guard Gen. Luis Motta Dominguez said the inmates evacuated from the cellblocks “were hostages of the violent prisoners.”

    A 5,000-strong security force and inmates have engaged in gunbattles at the prison Rodeo I and the adjacent lockup Rodeo II since the military launched a weapons search on Friday.

    “The situation is the same,” inmate Rafael Contreras said from inside Rodeo II. He spoke to The Associated Press after being reached by cell phone by one of the inmates’ relatives outside the prison.

    “They are using weapons of war against us,” Contreras said, referring to the assault rifles of the troops who have surrounded the prison.

    Contreras told the AP that prisoners were also well armed, but he insisted they were acting in self defense. “We use them to defend ourselves at times like this,” he said.
    Decomposing bodies?
    El Aissami told Union Radio earlier Monday that only one prisoner and two National Guard troops have been killed during the clashes. At least 20 other troops have been wounded, he said.

    Contreras said that there have been 17 deaths amid the gunfire, and that several bodies were decomposing in the Rodeo II prison with the inmates.

    Maj. Jorge Galindo, a Justice Ministry official, declined to comment on the claim, saying authorities would not provide additional details until the military takes control of the prison.

    “They are lying,” El Aissami said earlier of claims the death toll had risen.

    A small group of inmates has prevented others from leaving the prison, he said.

    Leo Ramirez / AFP – Getty Images
    The Venezuelan national guard shoots tear gas to El Rodeo prison in Guatire, about 25 miles from Caracas, on June 20, 2011. National guard troops were scrambling Sunday trying to retake control of Venezuela’s El Rodeo prison, where 25 people have been killed in three days of unrest, the country’s Interior chief said. Violence erupted in the El Rodeo I prison on June 12 when a riot broke out that left 22 people dead.

    Days later, thousands of troops stormed the prison to disarm the inmates.

    Dominguez said leaders of the violent uprising inside Rodeo II are seeking to extend the conflict, calling fellow inmates inside other prisons and trying to convince them to attack National Guard troops.

    Venezuela’s severely crowded prisons have suffered repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs often fight for control of cellblocks and the sale of weapons and drugs.

    The country’s 30 prisons were built to hold 12,500 prisoners but instead hold about 49,000, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a group that monitors prison conditions.

    Last year, 476 people died and 967 were injured in the prison system, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


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