Chavez: Negotiations helped end prison standoff

AP News
Posted: May 21, 2012 9:47 PM
Chavez: Negotiations helped end prison standoff

President Hugo Chavez said Monday that he personally spoke with some inmates by phone before prisoners engaged in a three-week armed standoff at a Venezuelan penitentiary agreed in negotiations with authorities to come out and be moved to other jails.

Chavez said on television that he had been worried the situation at the prison might turn into "a disaster."

The standoff at La Planta prison in Caracas ended Friday night as the last of more than 1,600 inmates filed out and climbed aboard trucks to be taken to other prisons.

Inmates had begun to trickle out hours after heavy gunfire erupted at the prison Thursday along with blasts that officials said they believed were explosives used by armed prisoners who had kept authorities out of the facility since late April. It remains unclear what happened inside the prison Thursday.

Chavez rebuffed accusations by some opponents that the government had given in to demands of some inmate leaders.

"We negotiated for life," Chavez said in a phone call broadcast on state television. He said the situation was resolved peacefully through dialogue and because "the opinion of the prisoners was taken into account."

"I went as far as to talk with some of them by phone," he said.

Now that prisoners have been moved out, the government is shutting down La Planta prison following two escape attempts and complaints of overcrowding.

Tensions at the prison had risen since April 27, when authorities said they foiled an escape attempt by finding a tunnel dug by inmates that led to a sewer. Three days later, gunfire erupted at the prison after what officials described as another escape attempt.

Some relatives of inmates said during the standoff that a group of armed prisoners was holding out to avoid being taken to other prisons that have severe crowding problems and are far away from the Caracas courts handling their cases.

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.

The group said La Planta was especially crowded, having been built for 350 prisoners but recently holding about 2,600.

Carlos Nieto, a prison rights activist, said severe problems remain throughout the country despite the closing of La Planta.

"The problem isn't over here. It simply moved somewhere else," Nieto said in a phone interview, adding that the prisons where the inmates were sent also have crowding problems that have worsened with the new arrivals.

Nieto, who heads the organization Una Ventana a la Libertad, or A Window to Freedom, said authorities should further investigate how the inmates obtained their weapons inside La Planta.