President Hugo Chavez promised Saturday to fix Venezuela's notoriously corrupt and violent penitentiary system, swearing in a top official responsible for improving some of Latin America's deadliest prisons.
Chavez expressed optimism that Iris Varela, a lawyer, congresswoman and high-ranking governing party member, will root out graft and curb violence in Venezuela's overcrowded and understaffed prisons as minister for penitentiary affairs.
The president decided to create the new Cabinet post shortly after inmates led an armed, weekslong uprising that caused seven deaths at the Rodeo I prison and adjacent Rodeo II lockup. Negotiations permitted a peaceful end to the 27-day uprising pitting rebellious prisoners against hundreds of National Guard troops dispatched to retake control of the prison.
"We need success in an issue that's still a pending task," Chavez said during a televised speech from the presidential palace.
Chavez said his government's previous initiatives aimed at reforming the prison system failed, and he encouraged government officials to cooperate with Varela to ensure this new effort is successful.
Venezuela's severely crowded prisons have suffered repeated violent outbursts as rival gangs fight for control of cellblocks and sell weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt prison guards.
Last year, 476 people died and 967 were injured in prison violence, according to figures compiled by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The government says Venezuela has more than 44,000 inmates in its 34 prisons. The prisons were built to hold about 12,500 inmates, according to the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a group that monitors prison conditions.
Opposition politicians and human rights activists have strongly criticized authorities, including Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami, for not cracking down on rampant corruption among National Guard troops who take bribes to let inmates obtain drugs, alcohol and weapons ranging from powerful assault rifles to grenades.
Varela told Chavez she would not let him down.
"I'm not going to disappoint you or the Venezuelan people," she said.
Chavez, who spent two years in prison after leading a botched 1992 coup attempt, stressed that Venezuela must establish programs that permit the social rehabilitation of inmates while gradually replacing the existing system that emphasizes punishment.
"We must substitute this punitive system for a humanist system," he said.