At this point, the plight of Venezuelan prisons is internationally known. Jails are severely overcrowded, conditions are horrendous and members of armed gangs kill each other with such frequency that the government actually created a new Prison Ministry to oversee the rights of prisoners. But the most perplexing aspect of the penitentiary system is not the rise in violence within prison walls, but rather the internal hierarchical systems that prisoners have created for themselves. Why, if prison gangs are armed to the teeth and capable of overrunning the guards, are they still there? Why, if these men have the firepower to wage battles against each other, do they not just break out of prisons?
The answer lies in a bizarre hierarchical system with a large grey area.
Hierarchical gang leaders known as “Pranes,” are at the top of the prison heap. They often have an easier time conducting their illicit activities behind prison walls than they did outside of them. They do not just traffic drugs and arms and organize kidnappings from behind bars, they also dictate what prison guards do, and in some cases have influence up to the judicial level, deciding which prisoners will be set free or not.
Pranes have weekend visitation rights, the free use of cell phones and internet to conduct their business. They also regularly get to leave the prison to exercise, show their face about town and saunter back in when they please. There are usually between one and three Pranes per prison, those that execute their orders are known as “Luceros.” The rest of the prisoners shut up and do their jobs, often paying Luceros up to 1,000 Bolivares (between 100 and 230 USD) just to stay alive. Many don’t succeed however: Venezuela has some of the most violent prisons in the world. Over 300 people were killed within prison walls in 2011, and thus far there has been a 15 percent rise in murders in 2012.
The power of Pranes was most visible after the Rodeo prison riots in June – July 2011. After a 27-day stand-off between military forces and prisoners, President Hugo Chavez proudly announced that he had successfully negotiated with the Pranes to end the prison revolt.
Some prisons like San Antonio on the island of Margarita, are practically a prisoner’s paradise. The Pran there, known affectionately as “El Conejo” (the rabbit), has arranged for conjugal visits with the neighboring women’s prison and allows drugs to be used openly within prison walls, so long as the prisoners do not question his authority. Other prisons with less benevolent Pranes have an iron grip over inhabitants, criminals who become more hardened with each passing day.
Venezuelans often say, criminals now leave prisons more malandro (prone to crime) than when they went in. With over 45,000 inmates in the system nationwide, these breeding grounds for brutality and crime will have repercussions for years to come.