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Venezuela, the unheard: “Why do these things happen to us?”

Three weeks before he was shot dead, Miguel Calderon, an inmate in the lawless Los Llanos jail on Venezuela’s central plains, sent a voice message to his father:

“We live among the shit and the trash,” the 26-year-old former soldier, convicted of car theft, said in the message.

Relatives of inmates pray outside Los Llanos penitentiary after a riot erupted inside the prison leaving dozens of dead as the coronavirus disease continues in Guanare, Venezuela. Image credit Reuters, Freddy Rodriguez.

Miguel is just another one of the many of the prisoners that are detained in Venezuela’s overcrowded and violent penitentiaries. Miguel was imprisoned four years ago in Los Llanos, a complex of dirty white jail blocks ringed by rusted fencing overgrown with vegetation, on the outskirts of Guanare, the capital of Portuguesa state.

In the message to his father Victor, he admitted he is living in a crumbling sector of the prison called Jumanji, where prisoners slept in shacks “like dogs” as there was no space in the cells. The people in Jumanji were known as “the stained ones,” he said.

Miguel explained to his father how at one point he saw a cat’s head rolling on the ground and a group of “cheerful prisoners” who had found and eaten the animal. Prisoners, he said, defecated in the open.

“This is madness, dad,” he cried.

It is counted that in Los Llanos’s prison 4,000 inmates normally subsist on food relatives bring them, but authorities banned visits due to a coronavirus quarantine imposed in March.

Within the famine, the guards, desperate themselves amid national shortages, began stealing the little food getting behind bars, inmates said, forcing some prisoners to turn to eat stray animals.

The wife of one of the inmates shot dead with her baby. Image credit Erika Piñeros

By May 1, Calderon and other convicts could bear it no longer. Around midday, they crowded around the jail’s entrance, demanding change and some attempted to escape, according to two witnesses and three other people familiar with the incident.

Within this suffering, a contingent of National Guard soldiers guarding the perimeter opened fire, hitting scores of inmates, they said. Calderon was among them.

By the day’s end, 47 prisoners had died and 75 more were injured, the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons rights group said, the latest in a history of massacres in Venezuelan jails. The two people in the jail at the time say soldiers executed several of the wounded on the ground.

The day after, the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed grave concern and called for an immediate investigation.

The information and prison ministries did not respond to requests to comment, and no guards nor soldiers present during the incident released any comment.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor Tarek Saab said on Friday that authorities were investigating the incident and were conducting autopsies on the 47 victims.

The local National Guard detachment, in a statement on the day, said the penitentiary’s director had been stabbed while attempting to speak at the entrance with inmates and when they attempted to flee, “they were shot down.”

Image credit Amnesty International

Eclipsed by invasion

The story of the massacre has been twisted and buried by news of a bungled invasion against President Nicolas Maduro’s government, linked to the opposition, in which two former U.S. soldiers were captured and eight people were killed.

State television has been lauding Venezuelan soldiers for repelling just the sort of U.S. incursion the Socialist party has long warned of, allowing Maduro to deflect attention away from the killings in Los Llanos and other reported rights violations.

Recently, security forces have shot dead numerous Venezuelans protesting gas shortages. and intelligence agents have detained opponents criticizing the state’s readiness to combat the pandemic outbreak that is killing hundreds within the country.

A US State Department declared on Thursday that Maduro was using the failed invasion “to justify an increased level of repression” and was “avoiding responsibility” for the prison deaths.

It is not novel news, unfortunately, that riots in Venezuela’s teeming prisons turn violent and deadly, where crime groups hold control, often with penitentiary authorities’ consent. But this delicate balance of power is being destabilised by the COVID-19 crisis.

Also, a severe shortage of gasoline - exacerbated by American sanctions seeking to topple Maduro - has compounded the quarantine restrictions, curtailing Venezuela’s already limited food supply.

Nowhere have the shortages been felt more severely than in prisons, home for more than 50,000 inmates. With the government barely able to pay its workers or secure imports for subsidised food, the assistance to prisoners has slipped even further down the agenda -if it ever was in it.

Healthcare workers and members of the national police watch as an ambulance arrives with prisoners outside a hospital after a riot erupted inside a prison in Guanare, Venezuela. Image credit Reuters

Hoping for food

In Los Llanos jail, the gang leader, known as Olivo, in a message sent to various people locally after the deaths of his peers, shared that officers were “provoking inmates” with the new restrictions.

“They have stolen the food that our families sacrifice to send us,” Olivo mentioned. Olivo, in the message, said inmates on May 1 went “peacefully” to the entrance to express their fears to the prison’s director and seek for “a solution, not a conflict.”

The National Guard referred to him as “the leader” in their statement, using the same alias.

Within this terrible situation, tensions rose outside, though it is not clear what sparked the shooting.

“I told him, ‘don’t stay here, move’,” one person with him said in a message. But Miguel stayed put, the person said. As gunfire rang out, he was shot in his leg and chest, both people said. His friends dragged him back inside while soldiers went around “finishing off” prisoners lying injured on the ground, they said.

General Gherson Chacon, commander of the National Guard in Portuguesa, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The two people there at the time said they took off Calderon’s clothes to look for more bullet holes, but blood bubbled through his mouth and he passed away “asphyxiated.” According to one person, before dying, he said: “Why do these things happen to us?”

Image credit

Guards, when they realised that they killed Miguel, left his rake-thin body, dressed only in underpants, on the ground outside the prison alongside the other corpses as blood pooled around them, photos sent to some media by local opposition lawmaker Maria Martinez showed. Victor identified Calderon in the photos.

Police returned Calderon’s body to Victor the following evening and his family buried him the morning after in a cemetery by Guanare.

In a phone interview, Victor said they had not received an official autopsy report confirming his son’s cause of death. Calderon was named in a list of 30 of the deceased published in pro-government newspaper Ultimas Noticias on May 4.

The miserable truth? “The government is not interested in letting the verity behind the massacre to come out,” Martinez said.


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