Venezuelan authorities have evacuated a prison following a deadly clash between inmates on Monday that left 16 dead.
Prisons minister Iris Valera blamed the violence on gangs within the jail who are presumed to have engaged in a battle for control over an area of the Sabaneta prison facility, located in the western city of Maracaibo.
“It’s deplorable that there are still some people who don’t even have the smallest respect for life,” she said to press on Tuesday.
Valera said the situation was a result of corruption and “complicity” between prison guards and the leaders of prison mafias, known as “pranes”, who allow the trafficking of arms into the jail among other irregularities.
The minister said that over 100 National Guard soldiers and 62 ministry officials were under investigation for arms trafficking into prisons. “We must end gang culture, there are now jails where there are no arms,” she said to TV channel Globovision.
Since Wednesday Sabaneta inmates have been peacefully evacuated from the prison in order for authorities to conduct an extensive search of facilities to remove firearms. The ministry will also implement a new system to prevent corruption and the flow of arms into the jail.
The Ministry of Penitentiary Affairs was created in 2011 by late President Hugo Chavez to tackle the notorious overcrowding, violence and corruption of Venezuela’s prison system.
Officials argue that problems in the prison system are inherited from the mismanagement of previous administrations, while critics say that the governments of Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro have not done enough to resolve the situation.
According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory NGO, around 47,000 inmates are held in the country’s 34 jails, which were originally designed to hold 14,500.
Policies implemented by the Prisons Ministry to improve the penitentiary system include special judicial operations to attend to the backlog in prisoners’ cases, renovations to prison facilities, and a prison “humanisation” scheme including cultural and educational programs.
On Wednesday Vice President Jorge Arreaza reported on positive developments in the judicial scheme to review prisoners’ cases, called Plan Cayapa. He said that so far 33,000 prisoners have been attended to by the plan, and as a result, “The [judicial] backlog has significantly diminished”.
The government has also made an effort to disarm prison populations and regain control of prisons from corrupt officials and prison mafias. Resistance to this process has provoked violence in certain facilities.
The worst such incident in several years occurred in January in the Uribana prison near the south-western city of Barquisimeto, which resulted in 60 dead and 120 wounded.