CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The dark halls inside Venezuela’s La Planta prison are pocked with bullet holes, littered with hunks of concrete and reek from the smell of garbage and raw sewage.
Authorities led journalists through the prison more than two weeks after inmates were moved out and the penitentiary was shut down following a three-week uprising that pitted armed inmates against troops. It was a rare glimpse inside a Venezuelan prison that used to be ruled by inmates, and activists say many others across the country remain effectively under the control of prisoners.
Iris Varela, the government’s prisons minister, said during Sunday’s visit that the government has complete control of various prisons. She mentioned seven prisons by name, but didn’t discuss the situation in the country’s other 26 prisons.
Prisoner rights activist Carlos Nieto said that in many cases “those who control the prisons right now are the inmates.”
The situation became evident in La Planta when armed inmates seized control in late April, refusing to be transferred to other penitentiaries. The prisoners remained holed up inside resisting authorities, and gunfire erupted repeatedly during the standoff.
The three-week confrontation ended May 17 when officials reached a deal with leaders of the inmates after a day of gunfire that left tear gas wafting over the prison. More than 1,600 inmates subsequently came out and agreed to be transferred to other prisons.
Varela said officials have since found more than 100 guns and tens of thousands of bullets stashed inside the prison, often after breaking through walls or the floor to find the hiding places.
One weapons cache was found in the floor in front of the pulpit of one of the prison’s Protestant chapels, said Wilmer Apostol, security director of the government’s prisons ministry.
The 3-meter (10-foot) deep storage space was filled with weapons, including a submachine gun and ammunition, Apostol told The Associated Press while leading visitors through the prison.
Piles of trash were strewn about the halls, along with mangled remains of rebar and rubble. Walls and ceilings were blackened by fires that broke out during the violence.
Prison unrest and crowding have become major problems for President Hugo Chavez’s government.
Violence is common inside Venezuela’s prisons, where inmates often manage to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. The watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory says about 560 people died in Venezuelan prisons last year, up from 476 in 2010.
During the latest violence at La Planta prison, one man who lived nearby was hit by a stray bullet and died. Varela said five other people were wounded during the shootouts, including two National Guard soldiers and three inmates.
The government decided to shut down the prison saying that it was overcrowded and that the conditions were below standards.
La Planta was originally built to hold 350 inmates, but the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory said its population had recently swelled to 2,600.
Now officials are hunting through its dingy passageways and cells looking for more weapons and stashes of drugs. They say they suspect they will find more contraband that inmates hid well.
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