MARACAY: Venezuela said on Wednesday that it had seized control of a prison from the hands of a powerful gang with international reach, in a major operation involving 11,000 members of its security forces.
The Tocoron prison had served as the Tren de Aragua gang’s headquarters, where it had installed amenities such as a zoo, a pool, and gambling rooms, according to an investigative journalist recently interviewed by AFP.
In a statement, the government congratulated law enforcement officers for regaining “total control” of the prison in the northern state of Aragua, adding the operation had “dismantled a centre of conspiracy and crime.”
After the government announced the complete evacuation of the facility, interior minister Remigio Ceballos told state broadcaster VTV that the inmates were being transferred to another facility.
Dozens of relatives who had been living inside the prison with sentenced inmates gathered outside for news.
“I am waiting to hear where they are taking my husband…I was living in there, but they kicked us out,” said Gladys Hernandez.
An AFP team saw security officers carrying motorcycles, televisions, air conditioners, and microwaves out of the jail.
“That’s ours!” shouted one of the women outside.
It appeared some inmates escaped during the operation, as a later government statement announced a “second phase” of the operation for the “search and capture” of “fugitive criminals.”
Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s most powerful local gang, is involved in crimes nationwide and has spread its tentacles to neighbouring nations.
According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, the gang has some 5,000 members.
It emerged a decade ago and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution, and extortion. Tren de Aragua is also involved in illegal gold mining.
The InSight Crime think tank says the gang is also a major player in migrant smuggling.
Risquez told AFP the gang “took advantage” of Venezuela’s economic and political crises over the past decade to expand operations, and is now present in at least eight other Latin American countries.
She said Tocoron had been entirely in the hands of the gang.
“Inside, the men I have seen with guns are prisoners belonging to the organisation. They guard the prison but not for the state.”
She described the prison as a “hotel” for the gang leaders, with a bank, baseball field, a restaurant, and even a disco.
The gang’s leader is Hector Guerrero Flores, who was serving a 17-year sentence in the prison for murder and drug trafficking, said Carlos Nieto, coordinator of prison rights non-governmental organisation, A Window for Freedom.
Nevertheless, prior to the operation he appeared to come and go from Tocoron at will, said Risquez.
According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), the country’s prisons are more than 50% overcrowded, with poor detention conditions.
Nieto said the raid was recognition of “the prison chaos we are experiencing and how negligent” the government had been in solving it.