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Latin American prisons are the most insane in the world

On Sept. 20, when 11,000 soldiers and police officers stormed the notorious Tocoron prison in northern Venezuela— on orders from President Nicolas Maduro to free the penitentiary from control of the Tren de Aragua gang — they were expecting chaos and violence. But one thing they weren’t expecting was a petting zoo.

For years, inmates at the prison (particularly gang members) had been building what some called a “little city,” fortifying themselves with an arsenal that included automatic rifles, machine guns, grenades and enough ammunition to start a small war. They also had a massive (and secret) recreational wing with amenities like a nightclub, casino, bank and the aforementioned zoo, where animals like crocodiles, pumas, flamingos and an ostrich were used by inmates to drive back invading authorities, according to some accounts.

The raid wasn’t entirely effective. Although an estimated 88 inmates attempting to escape were recaptured, the gang’s leader, Héctor “El Niño” Guerrero — imprisoned for murder and drug trafficking — disappeared and hasn’t been seen since. But it didn’t stop government officials from claiming victory anyway. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro praised the operation on X, touting it as proof they were “heading towards a Venezuela free of criminal gangs!”

Not everyone shared their enthusiasm. Phil Gunson, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, who’s lived in Venezuela for more than two decades, suspects the entire raid was staged, part of a “prior negotiation” between the gangs and authorities. “It’s the most plausible explanation for the ‘escape’ of all the key leaders,” he tells The Post.

It’s not just Tocoron; it’s been a weirdly active summer for many of the most infamous prisons of Central and South America, where inmates are making it abundantly apparent who’s really in charge.

In early October, prisoners at Tacumbú, Paraguay’s largest prison, held several dozen prison guards and the warden hostage for more than 15 hours. One of their demands (which wasn’t met) was the resignation of justice minister Ángel Barchini, who’d promised in recent days to crack down on the Rotela Clan, a gang that (not so) secretly controlled the prison. Their other demand, which was granted, was to open up the prison — already overcrowded at 4,000 inmates, twice its actual capacity—to even more inmates, thus increasing the gang’s pool of new recruits.

At the Litoral penitentiary in Guayaquil, Ecuador — where gang violence has become a regular occurrence— seven inmates suspected of assassinating presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August, were killed behind bars in early October. All of their bodies were found in ward 7, a section of the prison controlled by the gang Los Lobos. In June, 46 inmates were killed in a women’s prison in Honduras, when a fight broke out between rival gangs, who attacked each other with guns, machetes, grenades, and flammable liquid.

The brutality has been staggering and it’s not exclusive to one region or prison. From the Altamira Regional Recovery Center in Brazil’s northern Pará state, where inmates went to war in 2019 and celebrated by playing soccer with the decapitated heads of their victims, to the Lurigancho prison in Lima, Peru, which earned the nickname “Dante’s Inferno,” the prison problem in Latin America has become a cancer.

Peruvian lawyer Sandro Monteblanco, who’s toured dozens of penitentiaries across the world, told The Post that Lurigancho was the worst he’s ever visited. “I witnessed other prisoners being shanked right in front of me,” he says. “I had a client with testicular cancer whose…testicle grew to the size of a grapefruit until he passed away.”

Valerio Bispuri, a photojournalist who spent 10 years visiting and photographing 74 prisons across Latin America—which he documented in his book “Encerrados” — recalls being both terrified and surprised by what he encountered.  “They threw bags of urine at me, they pointed a knife at me,” he says. But he also saw inmates fight with knives and then, just hours later, play jovial games of soccer in the prison yard or rehearse tango dances.

How has it come to this? How have so many Latin American prisons become what Renato Rivera, a crime analyst in Ecuador, calls “the ‘headquarters’ of organized crime?” And most importantly, what (if anything) can be done to save them?

According to experts, the main culprit is overcrowding. Or as Giane Silvestre, a violence researcher at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, puts it, “The prisons are just crammed with people.” Over the last two decades, the prison populations in Central and South America have jumped by 77% and 200%, respectively, according to the World Prison Brief.

An overcrowded prison “undermines any minimal initiative to reintegrate inmates into society, such as educational programs, professional training or work,” says Silvestre. Prisoners aren’t being rehabilitated so much as packed in like sardines.

According to experts, the main culprit is overcrowding. Or as Giane Silvestre, a violence researcher at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, puts it, “The prisons are just crammed with people.” Over the last two decades, the prison populations in Central and South America have jumped by 77% and 200%, respectively, according to the World Prison Brief.

The lack of resources — even something as basic as enough beds—has led to widespread inmate unrest and violence. By the early 2010s, with guards overwhelmed and outnumbered, many prison authorities began making deals with gangs. By “keeping the peace,” so to speak, these prison bosses—sometimes called prans or kingpins—could control their own prisons like mini-mayors.

Not surprisingly, the prans had more in mind than just maintaining law and order. “They operate massive criminal enterprises both inside the prison walls and well beyond,” says Gunson. “Within the prison they make vast sums by selling services to inmates: in fact, an inmate who declines to pay what is known as ‘la causa’ will likely have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, and on top of that will be beaten and possibly killed.”

Prans sometimes end up more powerful in their new prison roles than they were on the outside. Just recently, Ecuadorian kingpin Jose Adolfo “Fito” Macias starred in a music video from the prison where he’s serving a 34-year sentence for murder, drug trafficking, organized crime, robbery, and weapons possession. In the video, filmed inside the Guayaquil prison and posted on YouTube, a duo of singers and Fito’s own daughter brag that Macias is “the boss of all bosses.”

There are a few notable exceptions to this “inmates running the asylum” strategy. El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency in 2022 because of gang violence, opened their newly-built mega-prison earlier this year, able to accommodate more than 40,000 inmates (it currently holds just 12,000). In February, Bukele tweeted a video of barefoot, tattooed prisoners wearing only white boxers, and declared that “this will be their new house, where they will live for decades . . . unable to do any further harm to the population.”

But Carlos Dada, the co-founder and director of the Salvadoran digital news outlet El Faro (“The Lighthouse”), isn’t so convinced that meaningful change is coming. “Doing something to address this problem involves a really long term solution, not just building a bigger prison,” he says. “But this always plays against a politician’s interests. They need visible effects to win the next election. They need to show what he’s doing now.”

Even if it is a make-believe solution, why aren’t more Latin American countries expanding their prisons, like El Salvador, to at least create the illusion of control? Lack of funding. Brazil, which has the third-largest prison population in the world, spent an average of $4,000 a year per prisoner in 2021, which is about a tenth of what’s spent on U.S. inmates.

In Peru, where the prisons have an overpopulation of 124%, “the state spends around $2,611 annually per prisoner, or $7.10 per day,” says lawyer Monteblanco.

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