Image Prison fire and riots throw more chaos into Venezuelan presidential elections [REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins]

Prison fire and riots throw more chaos into Venezuela’s presidential elections

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Venezuelans who came to visit incarcerated loved ones last week instead bore witness to the detention center being engulfed in flames. 68 have been confirmed dead, according to officials, and on Monday, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced that prison officials’ “negligence” had played a major role in the fire, admitting that the country’s prison system is severely overcrowded.

“We don’t discard the possibility of more arrests,” Saab said to the Los Angeles Times, with regard to the five prison officers that have been arrested so far. He said the fire investigation would last 45 days, as investigators continue building a timeline for the incident.

There have been conflicting reports over the origin of the blaze, with official reports claiming it was the result of prisoners setting mattresses on fire in an escape attempt. Another report by the Venezuelan prison rights advocacy group “A Window to Freedom” describes a riot in the facility after a guard shot a prisoner in the leg, which resulted in the fire.

If the Valencia prison fire had happened at any other time, it would still be mourned as a tragedy. But, in 2018, the fire has also ignited a debate over the country’s penal system as Venezuela’s presidential elections approach on May 20th.

Prisons, and prison riots, have long been a thorn in the side of the Venezuelan state, even before the country’s present economic and political crisis. Overcrowding and corruption have led guards to surrender control to armed gangs. Inmates have the ability to exchange drugs and weapons openly.

Between 1999 and 2014, 6,472 murders have been registered by Venezuela’s prison system (431 per year, on average), which is a lot considering the country only has about 55,000 inmates. The United States, by comparison, has reported less than 1,000 prison homicides over the same time period, despite having a prison population over 2.2 million.

Back in 2011, Venezuelan prisons made international headlines when 1,200 prisoners of the Rodeo II prison complex managed to take control and hold out against the government for 27 days using a stockpile of weapons that had been smuggled into the prison. Weapons were not just ubiquitous inside the complex, but were even publicly flaunted.

In the video below, inmates at San Antonio prison on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela, fire their weapons in honor of their fallen gang leader, El Conejo, in 2016.

“The only culprit is the government, which keeps a huge quantity of prisoners crammed together in police office cells for a long time in inhumane conditions,” said Yajaira Forero, a prominent opposition assembly member.

Venezuelan law states that prisoners have the right to be processed quickly, and should be taken before a judge to face charges or be released within 48 hours of arriving at a detention center. However, according to Attorney General Saab, some prisoners at the Valencia detention center had been there for as many as six years.

The fire at the detention center last week will only increase pressure on President Nicolás Maduro ahead of next month’s presidential election, with the incident coming amidst other crippling hurdles, such as hyperinflation, food shortages and declining oil production.

Image Hugo Chávez (left) and his protege, Nicolás Maduro (right) in 2011, prior to Chávez's death. Maduro served as Chávez's vice president, and came into office with high approval ratings because of that association. Fast forward 4 years, and those ratings have plunged into the teens. [Prensa Presidencial]
Hugo Chávez (left) and his protege, Nicolás Maduro (right) in 2011, prior to Chávez’s death. Maduro served as Chávez’s vice president, and came into office with high approval ratings because of that association. Fast forward 4 years, and those ratings have plunged into the teens. [Prensa Presidencial]
Many opposition parties are boycotting next month’s presidential election, labeling it a rigged vote. They are calling on other candidates to withdraw as well, in order to avoid legitimizing the results of the election, which President Maduro is expected to win.

Despite being widely unpopular amongst Venezuelans — Maduro’s approval rating hovers around 20% — he has managed to keep the opposition divided. One of his strongest opponents, Leopoldo López, has been under house arrest for nearly a year after being released from prison in July 2017, and Henrique Capriles, who has nearly won the presidency twice, has been banned from participating in politics for 15 years.

[Title Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins]

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