'We're all on death row now': Latin America's prisons reel from Covid-19

The region’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons have become centres of disease, with inmates rioting for better protection

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The last time Víctor Calderón saw his son, Miguel, alive was on the eve of Venezuela’s coronavirus shutdown in mid-March.

Seven weeks later he saw a photograph of Miguel’s bullet-riddled body displayed on a police computer alongside dozens of fellow prisoners at Los Llanos prison in the western state of Portuguesa.

Miguel Calderón.
Miguel Calderón. Photograph: Handout

Two days later, Calderón was handed back his child’s remains – one of at least 47 inmates killed during one of the worst prison massacres in recent Venezuelan history.

“I want to speak out so the world knows about this injustice,” the 49-year-old electrician said. “They slaughtered our children.”

Confusion still surrounds what exactly happened at Los Llanos prison on 1 May, and why. There is even doubt over the true number of deaths: Calderón said his son’s body had been returned marked with the number 128 – making him suspect the death toll was higher than officially announced.

But the episode is one of a spate of disturbances in Latin America’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons where the coronavirus pandemic appears to have played at least some role.

In late April nine people were killed and dozens injured during a prison riot in Peru’s capital, Lima, sparked by the death of two prisoners from Covid-19 – and fears the disease would spread.

Days later prisoners rebelled in the Brazilian city of Manaus – where mass graves have been dug for Covid victimsreportedly because of fears wardens might bring the coronavirus into the jail.

In Mexico – where a jailed senior leader of the Zetas cartel died of Covid-19 last week – prisons have also suffered a wave of pandemic-related unrest, with inmates reportedly rebelling against Covid restrictions, including the banning of family visits.

Colombian authorities have quashed two attempted jailbreaks linked to the coronavirus, including one that left 23 prisoners dead, while Argentina has also seen uprisings including one in which inmates hoisted a banner reading “We refuse to die in prison”.

The conditions in Los Llanos, like in many gang-controlled Latin American prisons, were dire well before the pandemic.

Relatives of inmates pray outside Los Llanos penitentiary after a riot left dozens of dead amid the coronavirus outbreak in Guanare, Venezuela, on 2 May.
Relatives of inmates pray outside Los Llanos prison on 2 May after a riot left dozens of dead amid the coronavirus outbreak in Guanare, Venezuela. Photograph: Reuters

A Reuters report on the massacre claimed some inmates had been so desperate they had eaten a cat. “We live among the shit and the trash,” Miguel Calderón, 27, told his father in a voice message from inside the prison.

With authorities unable to feed them, the prisons estimated 4,000 inmates relied on food brought in by relatives.

“In prisons, like everywhere in Venezuela, there is hunger,” said Tamara Taraciuk, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director in the Americas. “It’s not that they don’t provide adequate food – it’s that they don’t provide food.”

But visits were outlawed in March because of the quarantine ordered by President Nicolás Maduro – and the situation appears to have come to a head on 1 May when troops opened fire on demonstrating prisoners.

This week, Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Tarek Saab, announced that the prison’s director and five guards would be charged over the killings, claiming security forces had used their weapons after a gang leader instructed inmates to protest about “alleged irregularities during visits”.

The bloodshed at Los Llanos is unlikely to be the last in a region where 1.7 million inmates are crammed into often squalid installations designed for a fraction of that number.

Alexandre Sales, a criminal lawyer in the Brazilian state of Ceará – a Covid hotspot where more than 1,400 people have died – said the pandemic had turned its packed prisons into “powder kegs”.

Even before coronavirus, Sales said correctional facilities had resembled concentration camps – with 30 or 35 men inhabiting cells built for half a dozen, and two toothbrushes shared between 30 men. In March, 30 malnourished inmates were taken to hospital with scurvy.

View of the Miguel Castro prison east of Lima, Peru, on 27 April, during a riot that broke out due to lack of resources to avoid the spread of Covid-19.
View of the Miguel Castro prison east of Lima, Peru, on 27 April, during a riot that broke out due to lack of resources to avoid the spread of Covid-19. Photograph: Sergi Rugrand/EPA

“We already had an explosive situation here. Covid is just the spark that’s going to set the whole thing off,” warned Salles, who said he was receiving hundreds of messages each day from relatives terrified about the wellbeing of their incarcerated sons or partners.

A prisoner in Colombia’s Villavicencio prison, 75 miles south of Bogotá, said inmates felt similarly exposed as the coronavirus swept through its wings.

“I thought the death penalty was illegal in Colombia but we’re all on death row now,” said the man, who gave his name as Nelson and said he was one of 12 inmates in a cell designed for four.

Villavicencio’s prison has become the centre of Colombia’s Covid outbreak, reporting nearly 900 cases – over 7% of the country’s confirmed total. Images circulating on social media show harrowing scenes inside, with dozens of inmates crammed into tight spaces, often without face masks. In late April, authorities discovered a tunnel dug by inmates desperate to escape the infection-ridden prison.

“This virus is spreading like crazy. Someone help us. We’re going to die here,” Nelson said by phone.

A prison guard talks to a woman at the main entrance of the Villavicencio prison in Bogotá on 8 May.
A prison guard talks to a woman at the main entrance of the Villavicencio prison in Bogotá on 8 May. Photograph: Daniel Munoz/AFP via Getty Images

Taraciuk urged regional governments to consider temporarily releasing prisoners with chronic health conditions or who had yet to be tried for non-violent crimes. Thirty-seven per cent of people behind bars in Latin America and the Caribbean have never been convicted.

“When you have a pandemic like coronavirus in prisons like the ones we have in Latin America the risk of them becoming epicentres is huge,” Taraciuk said.

“And if prisons become an epicentre of coronavirus, it’s a public health problem, not only for those inside but also those outside – because there is contact with prison guards, with family members, with lawyers who go in and out of the prison and could take the virus outside.”

“Adopting measures to deal with overcrowding and coronavirus in prisons is a public health measure that benefits not only the detainees but also people outside. And the number one measure to deal with this is reducing overcrowding.”

For Miguel Calderón – who had been on the verge of release after receiving a four-year sentence for the 2016 theft of a motorcycle – it is too late.

He was buried on the outskirts of Portuguesa’s capital, Guanare, at the start of May.

“My only hope is that the world knows about what happened – because I doubt there will be justice,” his father said. “We are living in a dictatorship and all I am right now is a grieving father.”


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