Dozens of guns seized inside Venezuelan prison

AP News

6/3/2012 11:35:51 PM - AP News

Authorities seized about 125 guns stashed inside a prison following a standoff between armed inmates and troops that ended more than two weeks ago, Venezuela's prisons chief said Sunday.

Officials are carrying out an exhaustive search of La Planta prison in Caracas and they have found some guns by destroying floors and walls where the weapons had been hidden, said Iris Varela, the government's minister for prisons. She said about 40 percent of the vast prison has not yet been fully searched.

Varela said at a news conference that the weaponry recovered included handguns, shotguns, one submachine gun, one telescopic sight, 27 explosive devices and more than 64,000 rounds of ammunition.

The three-week confrontation at the prison ended on May 17 when officials reached a deal with leaders of the inmates, who agreed to be moved to other prisons. The last of more than 1,600 inmates came out the following day. The prisoners had been holed up inside resisting authorities, and gunfire had erupted repeatedly during the standoff.

One man who lived near the prison was hit by a stray bullet and died. Varela said five other people were wounded during the shootouts, including two National Guard soldiers and three inmates.

The government shut down the prison, which had long been overcrowded, once the violence ended and the last of the inmates were moved out.

Speaking with reporters at the empty prison, Varela said officials also found 6 kilograms (13 pounds) of various types of drugs and hundreds of contraband cellphones

She vowed a thorough investigation into how the weapons were smuggled in.

"Those who end up being responsible for this whole situation are a bunch of traitors," Varela said. She said no one had been detained thus far in the investigation.

Prison unrest and crowding have become major problems for President Hugo Chavez's government. Violence is common inside Venezuela's prisons, where inmates often manage to obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards.

The watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory says about 560 people died in Venezuelan prisons last year, up from 476 in 2010.

When Varela was asked whether inmates are armed in most of the country's prisons, she said: "There's a difficult situation, but they aren't the majority."

She also confirmed a recent news report that one prison in central Aragua state has a discotheque, and said various other prisons have swimming pools. She said such perks were allowed in the prisons starting more than a decade ago in an attempt to ease violence.

The Venezuelan newspaper El Universal recently said that inmates in Tocoron prison organized a Mother's Day concert, bringing in artists to perform at a discotheque called "Tokio."

Varela said the government plans to soon begin building eight new prisons, which are scheduled to be finished next year.

Venezuela currently has 33 prisons. They were built to hold about 12,000 inmates, but officials have said the prisons now hold about 47,000.