Caracas prison standoff holds neighbors hostage

CARACAS, Venezuela — Whether shut up in their homes or sleeping in the street, Venezuelans living around a Caracas prison have themselves become prisoners of a violent 22-day standoff between rebellious inmates and the authorities.

Caught up in the drama, which has so far left one person dead and several others wounded, are relatives of inmates camped out under a bridge outside the La Planta prison, and residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

“We also feel like prisoners,” said Sandra Jara, the exhausted mother of a young inmate accused of murder.

Heavily armed inmates are holding out inside the prison against a decision by Penitentiary Affairs Minister Iris Varela to close the facility because of overcrowding and to move the inmates to other jails.

In a video posted on the Internet, the prisoners said they would not surrender until the minister authorizes visits with their relatives and the release of inmates who have served out their sentences.

The confrontation has from time to time spilled over into the surrounding community.

A week ago a stray bullet from an exchange of gunfire between prisoners and the authorities killed a man as he watched television in his apartment near the prison.

Cruz de Blondell, a retired schoolteacher who lives two floors above the shooting victim, still can’t get over how two bullets shattered her apartment windows.

“I go to the bank and do my grocery shopping, but I’m shut in more now as a result of this. I can’t get around freely,” she said.

The women keeping a vigil outside the prison for their relatives inside have had to contend with tear gas wafting over the prison walls.

National guard troops, meanwhile, have sealed off the neighborhood, forcing schools to close and trapping residents in their homes.

“The national guard do not let us pass and the tear gas comes into our apartments,” Elías Tejada said.

Varela says negotiations with the inmates are still ongoing. Mindful of the high risks involved, she has rejected an assault on the prison.

Venezuela’s prison system is grossly overcrowded, with 47,500 inmates in facilities designed to hold only 14,500.

[AFP, 16/05/2012; Globovisión.com (Venezuela), 15/05/2012]

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