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The bullets are flying in Caracas

Traffic in Caracas — which is chaotic at the best of times — ground to a virtual standstill today as authorities were forced to shut down the main east-west highway crossing the length of the long and narrow city. The reason? Gunfire. Not just any gunfire, but assault rifle fire and sporadic grenades traded between ...

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images
LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Traffic in Caracas — which is chaotic at the best of times — ground to a virtual standstill today as authorities were forced to shut down the main east-west highway crossing the length of the long and narrow city. The reason? Gunfire. Not just any gunfire, but assault rifle fire and sporadic grenades traded between the security forces and the heavily armed inmates at the notorious La Planta prison, which sits next to the highway just off of downtown.

Stories about conditions in Venezuelan prisons often have an other-worldly, Mad Max feel to them; with nearly 50,000 inmates crammed into jails built to hold 12,500, overcrowding in Venezuelan jails is cinematographic in scale. Overwhelmed by the number of people, prison guards long ago gave up trying to control what happens inside, limiting themselves to guarding the perimeter to prevent breakouts. The result is a Hobbesian state of nature inside the prison, a never-ending war of all against all that left 560 inmates dead last year.

Making things worse is the rampant corruption of prison authorities, who make a profitable trade selling anything you can think of to the inmates: marihuana, handguns, stereos, assault rifles, blackberries, girls, waterbeds, DVD players, cocaine, laptops, even military-grade grenades. Anything you can think of, you can smuggle into a Venezuelan jail — at a price.

As you’d expect, a hyper-violent gang culture has developed in the jails, with the most ruthless, violent gang-dealers slowly rising to the top of the heap and becoming de facto dictators over their own little realms. In several prisons, these "pranes," as the top gang leaders are known in prison slang, end up holding run-of-the-mill prisoners as de facto hostages, preventing the authorities from moving them in and out of jail to attend their trials, or forcing inmates to participate in knife fights while gang leaders  and even guards  gamble on the outcome. Mad Max stuff, right?

Venezuelans are largely numbed to the extreme violence that’s become routine in the country’s jails. Suffering under one of the world’s highest murder rates, many find it hard to work up much compassion for the thugs who end up in jail. Little does it matter that nearly half the inmates haven’t been convicted of any crime, but are awaiting trial instead. Trials that, of course, are repeatedly postponed because the local pran won’t allow prisoners to be bused to court. Few stop to worry about those kinds of details — in fact, few worry about it at all.

Until, that is, the situation boils over as it did today at La Planta. Heavy fire breaks out, and the everyday human rights catastrophe inside Venezuela’s jails spills out onto the streets… in the form of a traffic jam.

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