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Tocoron prison in 2011 Alamy Stock Photo
Tocoron prison

Venezuela seizes control of prison used as gang headquarters

An operation involving 11,000 members of Venezuela’s security forces took back control of the prison.

VENEZUELA HAS SEIZED seized control of a prison from the hands of a powerful gang with international reach in a major operation involving 11,000 members of its security forces.

The Tocoron prison in the northern state of Aragua has served as the Tren de Aragua gang’s headquarters, boasting gang-managed amenities such as a zoo, a pool and gambling rooms, according to an investigative journalist recently interviewed by AFP.

In a statement, the government congratulated law enforcement officers for regaining “total control” of the prison, just hours after announcing the operation.

“This prison will undergo a process of restructuring and will be completely evicted,” read the statement, adding the operation had “dismantled a center of conspiracy and crime.”

Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s most powerful local gang, is involved in crime countrywide and has spread its tentacles to neighboring nations.

According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, the gang has some 5,000 members.

It emerged a decade ago, and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution and extortion. Tren de Aragua is also involved in illegal gold mining.

The InSight Crime think tank says the gang is also a major player in migrant smuggling.

Risquez told AFP the gang “took advantage” of Venezuela’s economic and political crises over the past decade to expand operations, and is now present in at least eight other Latin American countries.

She said Tocoron had been entirely in the hands of the gang.

“Inside, the men I have seen with guns are prisoners belonging to the organization. They guard the prison but not for the state.”

She described the prison as a “hotel” for the gang leaders, with a bank, baseball field, a restaurant and even a disco.

According to local media, the gang’s leader is Hector Guerrero Flores, who was serving a 17-year sentence in the prison for murder and drug trafficking.

Nevertheless, prior to the operation he appeared to come and go from Tocoron at will, said Risquez.

According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP), the country’s prisons as a whole are more than 50 percent overcrowded, with poor detention conditions.

© AFP 2023

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