The most important milestone in terms of citizen security in 2023 for Venezuela began on September 20, with the intervention of police and military forces in the Torocón Judicial Prison, in the state of Aragua.
According to InSight Crime, an organization that studies organized crime in Latin America, this prison was the center of operations of the country’s main criminal gang: the Tren de Aragua, a criminal organization that expanded its influence in at least seven other Latin American nations.
From that day on, the Nicolás Maduro regime raided six other prisons in different states: Tocuyito (Carabobo, October 25); Puente Ayala (Anzoategui, October 30); La Pica (Monagas, November 3); Vista Hermosa (Bolívar, November 6); Trujillo (Trujillo, November 8), and San Felipe (Yaracuy, November 10).
At the end of the “conquest” of the Yaracuy prison, Venezuelan Minister of Interior Relations, Justice, and Peace Admiral Remigio Ceballos issued a declaration of victory: “We have put an end to the criminal groups that operated from prisons.”
But the reality seems to point in a different direction. According to Roberto Briceño León, director of nongovernmental organization (NGO) Venezuelan Violence Observatory, the main objective of the interventions was not to dismantle the mega-gangs, but rather to convey to the population the idea that control of certain spaces was being retaken, through campaigns with strong propaganda content.
The sociologist and academic referred to the images the regime’s official media channels disseminated each time uniformed forces made their entry into a prison facility. These dynamics, he said, were characterized by “theatricality.”
“The images disseminated by the regime in different instances are official photos, not taken by media journalists. They present the detainees seated, shirtless, and in rows. This is an aesthetic, a choreographic form that has been very much developed by the Bukele government in El Salvador […]. All with a propaganda effect,” Briceño told Diálogo. “So the way in which the photos are taken, and the detainees are placed in the different prisons […] is very similar. Both in the case of Bukele and in this case it’s a choreography.”
For Briceño, the Maduro regime tried to address the penitentiary issue to somehow boost its public image. Maduro and his regime are responsible for the complex humanitarian emergency the country is suffering, numerous organizations such as the International Federation for Human Rights said.
“They are trying to copy that process, somehow seeking to get the same sympathy that that policy has had in El Salvador, despite the immense ideological and political differences between one and the other,” said Briceño. “At this moment, they are seeking through this to get the same gain in popularity; consequently, an electoral gain.”
According to the NGO Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, there is evidence that some prison raids were preceded by negotiations between pro-Maduro officials and prisoner leaders.
Carlos Nieto Palma, director of the Venezuelan NGO A Window to Freedom, said that Maduro himself gave rise to these rumors to spread, since beyond propaganda he did not offer clear versions about the purpose of these operations.
“There was no clear information about what was happening, and this gave rise to thousands of versions and conjectures,” Nieto Palma told Diálogo. “Even that they had warned the pranes [criminals who control the prisons] before the incursions, so that they would leave.”
In November, when the raids were over, the Ministry for Penitentiary Services released several lists with the names of the inmates who had been transferred to 25 other facilities from the seven prisons that had been raided.
Based on these lists, Venezuelan news site Efecto Cocuyo reported that 8,015 prisoners were transferred. But there were 8,841 people in the prisons that were raided. According to Nieto Palma, the whereabouts of 826 individuals are unknown.
“Improvisation prevailed in these interventions,” said Nieto Palma. “Hence, there was no clear notion about the places to which the prisoners would be taken, once they executed the eviction of the prisons.” Conflicts in 2024 will begin to brew due to “extreme overcrowding” caused by the transfer of groups of criminals, he added.
“The prisons and pretrial detention centers were already extremely overcrowded,” Nieto Palma said. “So, if now they take more people to the place where there was no room for anyone, this is going to create disorder. I think that’s going to be, among others, one of the big problems of 2024.”