The Minister (r) likes to socialize with criminal leaders, to give them love
*** This has been the first year Minister Iris Varela has been in her job
In July 2011 Hugo Chavez went public to announce that Mrs. Iris Varela “was ready and willing to assume the newly created Ministry of Prisons”. He added: “Iris is ready to transform our prisons in centers where we can build the new man along the lines of love and socialism”. Up to that moment Mrs. Varela had been a very vocal, pro-Chavez, member of the Venezuelan National Assembly. Her aggressive rhetoric had earned her the nickname “Fosforito”, the petite hothead.
Mrs. Varela started her activity by issuing a decree prohibiting prisons to receive new inmates. She never explained the reasons for this decision that was received with surprise by the general public. The freeze on new prisoners put the police under strain, as they did not know what to do with criminals.
Just a few days later, the Director of the National Police said publicly that the new Minister had called him to tell him that “the freeze had been abandoned and the decree revoked”. Again, no explanation was given for this sudden change in plans.
President Chavez approved these initial actions although most everybody else saw them as very erratic: “I am very happy and proud of having chosen Iris Varela Minister for Prisons. She is like a new Mother Theresa of Calcutta, like a mother to all inmates. This was the idea, to infuse them with love”.
In May 5, 2012 Mrs. Varela went public to announce that prisons would no longer publish statistics on the number of inmates and on the conditions in the different prisons. She argued that this information would be fodder for the opposition. “It is not a matter of denying reality”, she said in a televised press conference, “We will not do it because “rightist” civil society organizations use this information to attack President Chavez”. She added that the government would “guarantee” jobs to any inmate that completed his, her prison term, a difficult promise to fulfill in a country where 50 percent of the working population is not formally employed but work as peddlers and occasional labor.
In April and May of this year a major crisis developed inside the La Planta prison in Caracas. (See link http://www.conflictove.org.ve/carceles/carcelescaracas-crisis-en-el-penal-de-la-planta-seguimiento-informativo.html , for a newspaper account of events). This prison was designed for 350 inmates but had 2600. In April 20th a 21 year-old woman by the name of María Teresa Marrero was shot in the head by a inmate called Ender, who would then be shot 50 times by other inmates. When police tried to intervene they encountered resistance from heavily armed inmates. This started a battle both inside and from outside the prison that forced some 1500 policemen and National Guard to intervene. Smoke, tear gas and indiscriminated shooting put the entire neighborhood in jeopardy, forcing the minister of the Interior to isolate the area and prohibit all traffic near the prison. Tanks and tear gas bombs were used by the police to try to control the situation. All buildings nearby were evacuated and schools were closed down. The inmates took relatives as hostages. Mrs. Varela claimed that the situation had developed due to a fight between rival gangs. The main west to east Caracas parkway, the Francisco Fajardo, had to be closed to traffic on May 17th. The crisis had already lasted for 20 days and had no signs of resolution. An attempt at a massive fugue by inmates had uncertain results. Some observers said that about 150 inmates escaped during the crisis but this figure has never been validated (http://eltiempo.com.ve/venezuela/conflicto/crisis-de-la-planta-reavivo-sospechas-sobre-un-comercio-de-fugas/54497 ). It is known that about 40 inmates were initially freed by the authorities in an effort to end the crisis. Mrs. Varela decided to close down the prison and to transfer the 2600 inmates to other prisons in Venezuela. Slowly the situation inside the prison became public. It was revealed that the management of the prison was in the hands of a mixed mafia made up of inmates, national guards and prison officers. Weapons, drugs, liquor and cell phones were available to many inmates, especially the leaders of the mafia, called Pran. There were five different mafias controlling the different areas of the prison. Two of the leaders were let go by the government in an effort to end the crisis. Each one of the five “governments” had their own set of rules and managed their “businesses” inside the prison. They established and collected fees for relatives to stay inside the prison, sold drugs or liquor and demanded “protection money” from inmates. Kidnapping of relatives were a source of extortion money from inmates. All of this activity had the complicity of prison staff and of members of the military. Inmates in rebellion started to demand Mrs. Varela’s dismissal, accusing her of triggering the crisis for announcing the closing down of the prison. The main leader of the rebellion, Robert Suarez Acosta (“El Chingo”) actually started to negotiate with the government. A s a result about 500 inmates were let go free. The negotiations with the leaders of the inmates involved the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello and the Minister of the Interior, Tareck El Aissami, while Minister Varela was essentially put to one side. A NGO, Observatorio de Prisiones, Observer of Prisons, that had been active in the past in conflict resolution within the prisons was not allowed to contribute this time around.
The transfer of inmates to other prisons was finally accomplished and La Planta closed down. Hundreds of inmates either escaped or were let go by the authorities. Between five and ten people died in the shooting. Mrs. Varela said that the crisis had been part of a campaign by the opposition (http://www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve/noticias/actualidad/sucesos/ministra-varela–hechos-de-la-planta-son-una–camp.aspx). A request by OAS Inter American Commision of Human Rights to investigate this event was rejected by Chavez through his man in the OAS, Roy Chaderton.
In an effort to avoid reponsibility Minister Varela claimed that the great amount of weapons existing in the La Planta prison had been there “from the times of the previous government, 14 years ago”.This was an absurd claim but, even if it were true, how did they fail to correct the situation in 14 years?
Civil society observers of prisons in Venezuela say that since Mrs. Varela took over the new ministry 523 inmates have died violently in prison and 1967 inmates have been wounded.
In other actions Minister Varela has prohibited relatives the bringing of food when they visit inmates. “We will give the inmates food” , she said.
Minister Varela has also said the President Chavez has approved a Security Plan for prisons that allow the government to monitor the staff of prisons. She said triumphantly : “We will keep an eye on those who keep an eye on the inmates”. We have to wonder who will keep an eye on those who keep an eye on those who keep an eye on the inmates.
Minister Varela has also proposed to eliminate all criminal records of the inmates, as a strategy to facilitate their redemption. She is seen frequently in reunions of a social nature with leaders of gangs within the prisons, which she feels is the right strategy to end prison violence. At least her approach has the merit of being creative, although her increasingly numerous critics call it counterproductive.
Mrs. Iris Varela is a good example of the quality of collaborators Hugo Chavez has. In turn, this explains why the country is in ruins.