The events in which at least 47 people died and 75 were injured on May 1st in Venezuela’s Los Llanos prison in Guanare, Portuguesa state are an alarming reminder of the awful prison conditions that Venezuela has historically failed to address.
Corruption, weak security, deteriorating infrastructure, overcrowding, insufficient staffing, and poorly trained guards keep armed gangs in effective control over prison populations in Venezuela. The United Nations has reported that prison infrastructure is infested with rats and insects, and detainees do not always have access to natural light, food, or water. Excessive use of pretrial detention – pretrial detainees make up 63 percent of the national prison population – contributes to overcrowding, which is now putting many detainees at risk of Covid-19 infection.
The Los Llanos prison, which has capacity for 750 people and currently holds 2,500, is no exception.
Venezuela’s minister of prisons, Iris Varela, says the government is investigating claims that the head of a prison gang forced other detainees to attack the prison’s security posts. The prisoners were killed as they trespassed into an area controlled by the Bolivarian National Guard, she said. The prison director and a Bolivarian National Guard lieutenant were injured.
But the nongovernmental group Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP) reported that the killings happened after prisoners protested the guards not providing them with food their families brought to them, which is how prisoners usually get fed. Venezuela is experiencing increasing levels of malnutrition, including among people in prison.
As of May 4, Venezuelan authorities had not provided a final account of how many people died or the status of investigations to establish exactly what happened during the uprising. Only 26 families have received the bodies of their loved ones, according to OVP. Many families cannot travel to the morgue given gas shortages, Covid-19-related restrictions on movement, and the high costs it entails.
Venezuelan authorities have a duty of care for people in prisons, which are under their control. They should ensure detainees are treated with dignity, use force proportionately as a last resort and lethal force only when strictly necessary to protect against death or serious injury. Those responsible for abuses should be brought to justice.
In Venezuela, where authorities behave as if they can act with impunity given the lack of judicial independence in the country, justice for these victims – and others who died in prisons in recent years – is very hard to imagine. That makes it all the more important that civil society and international bodies charged with investigating human rights violations committed in Venezuela continue documenting the facts, pursuing the truth, and pressing for justice – without that, those responsible for these deaths will never be held accountable.