Tocoron prison: Venezuela regains control of gang-run prison with pool and zoo

  • By Antoinette Radford and Vanessa Buschschlüter
  • BBC News

image source, Getty Images

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Armored vehicles and 11,000 members of the security forces were deployed.

Venezuela says it has regained control of a notorious prison, once controlled by the powerful Tren de Aragua crime group.

About 11,000 security personnel were deployed at Tokuron Prison, which had been running the inmates for years.

Prisoners were able to move freely within the prison, which had hotel-like facilities including a pool, nightclub and a mini-zoo.

The interior minister said that the jail will be completely cleared.

Tokuron housed not only convicted criminals, but also some of their associates and relatives, who moved to the penitentiary to be near their loved ones.

One woman, Gladys Hernandez, told the AFP news agency that she was waiting to hear where they were taking her husband.

“I was living there, but they kicked us out,” she said.

The prison doubled as the headquarters of Tren de Aragua, Venezuela’s most powerful international gang.

From prison, Tren de Aragua ruled a criminal organization that spanned several Latin American countries and reached as far as Chile.

Its members are involved in human trafficking, run prostitution rings and extort money from migrants.

The gang furnished the prison with all sorts of amenities, such as games rooms and a small zoo complete with flamingos and an ostrich.

Prisoners can bet on horse races, arrange loans at a makeshift bank and dance the night away at a nightclub called “Tokyo”.

When food and daily necessities were hard to come by in Venezuela at the height of the country’s economic crisis, one newspaper reported that locals would travel to Tocoron to buy essentials they could not get elsewhere.

The AFP journal said it saw security guards taking motorcycles, televisions and microwaves from the prison as its inmates were moved.

Ronna Rísquez, author of the book Tren de Aragua: The Gang That Revolutionized Organized Crime in Latin America, told BBC Mundo’s Valentina Oropeza that Tocorón operated “like a small town”.

The author also cautioned that cleaning up a prison does not automatically eliminate gangs.

“Their operations center has been closed, but the organization’s leaders and its overseas sales can continue to operate,” he said.

Officials gave little detail about how they attacked the prison. The military said there was one fatality, a mayor who died after hitting his head on the door of an armored vehicle.

The fact that such a large operation should have proceeded so peacefully in a prison filled with members of Venezuela’s most feared criminal gang has led to speculation that authorities may have negotiated with Tren de Aragua. will

In a statement, the government of President Nicolás Maduro congratulated security forces for “re-establishing order” in the prison and praised them for “clear and swift actions”.

However, a statement later announced that a “second phase” of the operation had been launched, which the government said was to “capture all absconding criminals”.

Some local media have reported that Hector Guerrero Flores, the leader of the Tren de Aragua gang, may be among those who escaped, but the government has not named any of the escapees.

Guerrero Flores was serving a 17-year sentence for murder and drug trafficking inside the prison.

However, he was so powerful that he reportedly came and went freely from prison before becoming a full-time inmate, according to Carlos Nieto, coordinator of the prison rights group A Window to Freedom.

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