Venezuela says it has seized control of a prison from the hands of a powerful gang with an international reach in a major operation involving 11,000 members of its security forces.
The Tocoron prison had served as the Tren de Aragua gang’s headquarters, where it had installed amenities such as a zoo, a pool and gambling rooms, according to an investigative journalist recently interviewed by the Agence France-Presse news agency.
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In a statement on Wednesday, the government congratulated law enforcement officers for regaining “total control” of the prison in the northern state of Aragua, adding the operation had “dismantled a centre of conspiracy and crime”.
President Nicolas Maduro praised a “great success in the fight against criminal organisations”.
After the government announced a complete evacuation of the jail, Interior Minister Remigio Ceballos told state broadcaster VTV that the inmates were being transferred to another facility.
Dozens of relatives who had been living inside the prison with sentenced inmates gathered outside for updates.
“I am waiting to hear where they are taking my husband. … I was living in there, but they kicked us out,” Gladys Hernandez said.
An AFP team reported security officers carrying motorcycles, televisions, air conditioners and microwaves out of the jail.
It appeared some inmates escaped during the operation as a later government statement announced a “second phase” of the operation for the “search and capture” of “fugitive criminals”.
Felicito a los más de 11 mil efectivos de la FANB y fuerzas policiales por la exitosa intervención del Centro Penitenciario de Tocorón. Ahora nos preparamos para la segunda fase de la Operación de Liberación Cacique Guaicaipuro. ¡Vamos hacia una Venezuela libre de bandas… pic.twitter.com/nglrnXJbEM
— Nicolás Maduro (@NicolasMaduro) September 20, 2023
Translation: I congratulate the more than 11,000 members of the FANB and police forces for the successful intervention of the Tocoron Penitentiary Center. Now we prepare for the second phase of the Cacique Guaicaipuro Liberation Operation. We are going towards a Venezuela free of criminal gangs!
‘Hotel’ for gang leaders
Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s most powerful local gang, is involved in crime countrywide and has spread its tentacles to neighbouring nations.
According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, the gang has about 5,000 members. It emerged a decade ago and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution and extortion. Tren de Aragua is also connected to illegal gold mining.
Risquez told AFP the gang “took advantage” of Venezuela’s economic and political crises over the past decade to expand its operations and is now present in at least eight other Latin American countries.
She described the prison as a “hotel” for the gang leaders with a bank, baseball field, restaurant and night club.
The gang’s leader is Hector Guerrero Flores, who was serving a 17-year sentence in the prison for murder and drug trafficking, said Carlos Nieto, coordinator of A Window for Freedom, a prison rights NGO.
Prior to the operation, he appeared to come and go from Tocoron at will, Risquez said.
According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons, the country’s prisons are more than 50 percent overcrowded and have poor detention conditions.