Venezuela's U.N. for Drug Traffickers

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Manca Juvan

The male section of the Los Teques Prison

Shouting Venezuelan girls play kickball in a courtyard. A fair-skinned British girl nearby answers a ringing pay phone in Spanish, jumps to answer a second phone in English, then jokes to a French girl at the adjacent food stand: "I don't know which language to answer in."

Recess at a school for the children of the diplomatic corps? Nope, it's the female penitentiary outside Caracas, where Venezuela sends foreigners caught smuggling cocaine.

The inmates are a far cry from the stereotype of the impoverished local-girl-turned-mule by unscrupulous traffickers. Clearly, many middle-class Americans and Europeans are ready to do dirty work for drug rings too, and many of the unsuccessful end up here with eight-year sentences. Their life in lock-up can hold unusual luxuries — and unusual dangers.

As inmates tell it, Venezuela's prisons are run not by the guards, but by the prisoners — and guns and drugs have become common currency inside prison walls. At the nearby male prison, which holds three times its capacity of prisoners, shoot-outs are a regular occurrence. Frightened foreign inmates say the understaffed, underarmed guards cannot stem the violence and do not even clean off the blood marks splattered across the walls.

"Nothing here makes sense," one inmate at the men's penitentiary told TIME, speaking — as all interviewed prisoners did — on condition of anonymity. "You can't apply logic. There's the law, and then there's what actually happens."

Venezuelan prisons are notoriously violent, and news of riots is common in the local press. Last January, 16 inmates at the Uribana prison were hanged, killed and stabbed to death as rival gangs battled for control. Inmates often rebel or go on hunger strikes to protest long procedural delays that leave them locked up for years before they're given a sentence. The Venezuelan Prison Observatory, a Caracas-based NGO, says that the country's jail system has the worst homicide rate in Latin America, calculating that 22 of every 1,000 inmates died violently in 2006.

But the Interior Ministry rejects those numbers. "I doubt the scientific rigor of such an alarming rate," Fabricio Perez, general director for custody and rehabilitation at the ministry, told TIME. His colleague, deputy interior minister Ricardo Jimenez Dan, took aim at the director of the NGO, Humberto Prado, a former prison director under a previous government. "It would seem that the drama that our jails are living is the only way of life and sustenance that he has," the deputy minister said.

Perez maintains that human rights conditions in jails are better now than before President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998. But he was unable to produce official statistics on prison homicides. He said the state has a comprehensive plan for the prison system that includes training new prison staff, providing new equipment, and building 14 new jails to reduce overcrowding — construction on the first three is already under way, he says. But the dire conditions in a prison system that now houses many Europeans has prompted the European Commission to looking into funding a program to rebuild prisons and train prison staff in Venezuela, one embassy official said.

Despite their grim circumstances, many foreign inmates use their time inside to network, plotting future runs with other drug traffickers. "It's not good for someone who wants to think about stopping," a prisoner said. According to foreign inmates at the Los Teques prisons, a kilo of cocaine bought for $2,000 in South America can fetch around $25,000 in Europe — some prisoners were paid $4,000 for every kilo they carried, and could cart 10-12 kilos on any given trip. The pay scale makes it a tough profession to quit, even for middle-class twenty-somethings from the industrialized world for whom the price may include doing time at Los Teques.

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