prison getting raided

What is behind the seizure of Venezuela's most-notorious prison?

In Venezuela, security forces recently seized one of the country’s most-notorious prisons, with the mission of dismantling a transnational criminal gang that was ruled from inside. But the head of the gang was able to escape, and now, countries across South America are searching for him.

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On Sept. 20, 11,000 soldiers and police officers stormed Venezuela’s Tocorón prison, one of the most violent in the country.

What they found inside is notorious: a nightclub, illegal drug shops, swimming pools, a professional baseball field, children’s playgrounds, and a zoo, with monkeys and flamingos.

They also found that hundreds of relatives of the inmates, including children, were living there.

But what the authorities didn’t find was the facility’s most-dangerous prisoner: Héctor Guerrero, known as El Niño Guerrero, who is said to be the head of Venezuela's largest criminal organization, the homegrown Tren de Aragua.

This group has profited from the exodus of Venezuelan migrants traveling to South America, according to Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of InSight Crime, a think tank that researches organized crime in the Americas.

“Tren de Aragua is one of the few groups in Latin America that went transnational not through the drug trade, but through human smuggling — by following the exodus of more than 7 million Venezuelans who have fled their country,” he said.

It’s not just smuggling that Niño Guerrero’s cartel makes money off of, according to McDermott. They also engage in extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, murder-for-hire, sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

Guerrero was also the prison kingpin, thanks to the complicity of Venezuelan prison authorities, according to Humberto Prado, the head of a prison watchdog organization in Venezuela.

He said that self-governing prisons are the norm in Venezuela.

“The Venezuelan government devolved responsibility for the running of these prisons to criminals,” he said. “Health, safety, food — it’s all controlled by inmates.”

He added that the prisoners who don’t follow the facility’s rules, which include paying taxes to the most-powerful criminals, can be killed.

“It’s been an open secret for years, but the authorities have ignored it,” Prado said.

He added that the Venezuelan government might have decided to launch this security operation now because it wants to improve relations with other Latin American countries.

Colombia, Peru and Chile have publicly demanded that this prison be dismantled.

McDermott from InSight Crime added a potential additional reason: “Venezuela is gearing up for a presidential campaign, elections are next year. And I think that [President Nicolás Maduro] is seeking to burnish his credentials, to show that he's tough on crime both nationally and internationally.”

He also said this is part of a strategy to clean up some of the darker aspects of his regime.

The same day that the prison was dismantled, the United Nations released a report that details serious human rights abuses committed by Maduro’s authoritarian regime in recent years.

McDermott said it’s very likely that the Venezuelan government negotiated with the prison leadership because several days before the prison was shut down, weapons, money and people were moved out of the prison through underground tunnels.

“This suggests, of course, that they had a long warning that the operation was coming and that by the time the armed forces were deployed, Nino Guerrero and much of the leadership of the Tren de Aragua was long gone.”

It’s not clear where Guerrero is now, but McDermott said it’s a dangerous situation.

“We might see an increase in drug operations and violence that might be the result of these leaders going into the field.”

The international police agency Interpol has issued a Red Notice seeking his capture, and governments across South America are hunting the fugitive.

The police in Peru announced a reward of about $132,000 for information that helps locate Guerrero in Peru. The government warned that “this dangerous criminal might have entered Peruvian territory” and could be planning crimes to maintain the “supremacy” of his extortion business there.

Last Thursday, a court in Chile ordered Guerrero’s arrest.

“A two-year investigation allows us to confirm that Héctor Guerrero was aware of the criminal operations carried out by cells of his organization that were operating in Chile,” said Raúl Arancibia, regional prosecutor of Tarapacá, in a statement.

Pilar Lizana, a security expert with Athena Lab, a security think tank in Chile, said even if the Chilean police are able to locate and arrest Guerrero, there will be more challenges.

“Our prisons are not prepared to detain a criminal like Guerrero,” he said. “It’s a risk because they could share knowledge between inmates, and we could end up with self-governing prisons, like it happens in other parts of Latin America.” 

Lizana added that Chile needs to urgently update its penitentiary system and infrastructure.

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