Venezuela: Maduro Regime Shuts Down Gang-Run Prison Featuring Casino, Zoo

Special forces take a position outside the Tocoron prison a day after authorities seized c
YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela — The socialist regime of narco-dictator Nicolás Maduro, in a surprising move, stormed the country’s infamous gang-run Tocorón prison on Wednesday as part of a crackdown on the Tren de Aragua (“Aragua Train”), Venezuela’s largest known criminal organization.

The prison, which up until this week served as Tren de Aragua’s main “headquarters,” reportedly hosted its own zoo, baseball field, bars, a casino, a nightclub, a bank, a pool, a cryptocurrency farm, and playgrounds. The raid and shutdown of Tocorón follows years of inaction of the socialist regime against the criminal “mega-gang.”

“The Bolivarian Government informs that the Cacique Guaicaipuro Liberation Operation has been underway since the early hours of the morning. Its objective is to dismantle and put an end to organized crime gangs and other criminal networks operating from the Tocorón Penitentiary, to the detriment of the tranquility of the Venezuelan people,” an official statement from the Maduro regime published on Wednesday read.

The socialist regime reportedly deployed some 11,000 members of its security forces to raid the penitentiary center, seizing their extensive firearms arsenal and transfering all inmates spread across other prisons in the country.

Venezuelan Justice Minister Remigio Ceballos provided vague information on the operation on Thursday through the country’s state-owned media apparatus, informing that one member of the Bolivarian National Guard died during the operation and adding that four unspecified security agents were detained for their involvement with the criminal gang.

“We have prevented a massive escape and we have controlled all those deprived of liberty [a term used by the socialist regime to refer to prison inmates] and we have also captured some people with weapons,” Ceballos said.

“We have more than 60 individuals belonging to a large criminal gang that is part of structures that moved in all parts of the country,” he continued. “That is, we are obtaining high-level information of a criminalistic nature that will provide us with matters of interest for the future captures that we are going to make.”

Ceballos did not provide any further details.

While the entrances of the prison were guarded by the Bolivarian National Guard, the Venezuelan armed forces had no say on the inner workings of Tocorón. The prison was run by the Tren de Aragua, which is believed to be Venezuela’s biggest criminal organization. Established in 2014, the gang’s criminal activities range from homicide, theft, extortion, contraband, and kidnapping to drug, human, and arms trafficking. The U.S. Department of State has accused both the Tren de Aragua and the Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) terrorist organization of operating sex trafficking networks in Colombia’s Norte de Santander department.

In recent years, the Tren de Aragua has spread beyond Venezuelan borders, using the same routes and methods employed by millions of Venezuelan migrants that have fled from socialism. The criminal organization has reportedly been succesful in exporting its criminal activities and modus operandi as a sort of “franchise” to other countries in the region while providing “logistical support” from within Venezuela. As a result, the Tren de Aragua now has a confirmed presence in Colombia, Brasil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and “possibly” in the United States, according to Venezuelan Journalist Ronna Rísquez, who published a book in February on the criminal organization.”

The criminal organization is led by Héctor “the Child” Guerrero Flores. Guerrero, a man with an extensive criminal record, led the organization from inside Tocorón as its pran, a slang-term and/or title given to the topmost leader of a Venezuelan prison. 

Pran is also an acronym for Preso Rematado Asesino Nato, which loosely translates to “Finished-off, Natural-Born Killer Prisoner.”

A pran rules over a prison facility through a sort of personal fiefdom system commonly known as a pranato (“Pranate”), charging inmates a pre-established amount — either biweekly or monthly — that goes towards their “cause.”

The income received from “the cause” is often used to transform the prison’s insides into the pran and his gang’s own inner enclaves, commissioning the construction of facilities and amenities such as pools, bars, clubs, and even parallel private banking offices — all while the socialist regime’s armed forces provide exterior security to the prison. A pran and his activities inside Venezuela’s prison centers often count with the “blessing” of the socialist Maduro regime, tacit or otherwise. The prans and pranate system have also built their own extensive lexicon

Guerrero’s current whereabouts remain unknown, as he was reportedly not present in the prison at the time of the raid. The prison also featured access tunnels that connected the facility with the nearby Lake Valencia, which inmates could use to come and go from the prison at their leisure, with boats located at the lake for further transportation.

It remains unclear what — after so many years of public knowledge regarding Tocorón — prompted the Maduro regime to storm and shut down the prison this week.

The Venezuelan Prison Observatory (OVP), a non-government organization, claimed to CNN en Español on Thursday that the raid on Tocorón came after Guerrero and other prison leaders negotiated with the Maduro regime to hand over the facility.

According to the NGO, Guerrero, along with his closest allies, allegedly left Tocorón days before the raid occurred, not informing the inmates of what was going to occur. The NGO also claims that many of the inmates could have left through tunnels built in the prisons and later “canoed themselves in the mountains near Tocorón.”

While the Maduro regime has boasted that “Tocorón is over,” Rísquez asserts that the shutdown of the prison does not mean the dismantlement of Tren de Aragua.

“We have seen how the government of President Nicolás Maduro is seeking legitimacy,” Rísquez told the Venezuelan news website Efecto Cocuyo on Thursday. “The bad image that the Tren de Aragua was giving in the region was tarnishing it.”

Rísquez, much like the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, suggested that the shutdown of the prison came after negotiations between the gang leadership and the socialist regime.

“There was no way to enter the Tocorón prison by force without this generating a massacre. It was necessary to talk and reach agreements with the prisoners,” she explained.

“The issue of entering and retaking the prison was a debt owed by the authorities to the country,” she continued. “The departure from the prison is going to have an impact on the [Tren de Aragua], because they lost their base of operations. But this does not imply a demobilization of the organization.”

In August, Rísquez told the outlet Dialogo Americas that socialist dictator Maduro’s then-inaction against the gang was “due to the fact that the Tren de Aragua is a kind of armed wing of his regime.”

“The regime, not only Maduro’s but also [late socialist dictator Hugo] Chávez’s, quickly understood that it could have these types of organizations like collectives or mega-gangs at its service, and it uses them for whatever it needs,” she said.

Rísquez also said that the “pranate” system remains present in at least eight other prison facilities in Venezuela and that it is something that the Maduro regime is aware of, but has not wanted to recognize. 

“The government says it did not know there were weapons in Tocorón,” Rísquez said. “That is not possible because for many years it was controlled by pranes.”

Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.


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