Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Venezuela's Prison Paradise




By SIMON ROMERO
PORLAMAR, Venezuela — On the outside, the San Antonio prison on Margarita Island looks like any other Venezuelan penitentiary. Soldiers in green fatigues stand at its gates. Sharpshooters squint from watchtowers. Guards cast menacing glances at visitors before searching them at the entrance.

But once inside, the prison for more than 2,000 Venezuelans and foreigners held largely for drug trafficking looks more like a Hugh Hefner-inspired fleshpot than a stockade for toughened smugglers.

Bikini-clad female visitors frolic under the Caribbean sun in an outdoor pool. Marijuana smoke flavors the air. Reggaet├│n booms from a club filled with grinding couples. Paintings of the Playboy logo adorn the pool hall. Inmates and their guests jostle to place bets at the prison’s raucous cockfighting arena.

“The Venezuelan prisoners here run the show, and that makes life inside a bit easier for us all,” said Fernando Acosta, 58, a Mexican pilot jailed since 2007. His cellmate, a Congolese businessman, had hired him to fly a Gulfstream jet that prosecutors accuse them of planning to use for smuggling two tons of cocaine to West Africa.

It is not uncommon for armed inmates to exercise a certain degree of autonomy in Venezuela’s penitentiaries. Prisoners with BlackBerries and laptops have arranged drug deals, abductions and murders from their cells, the police say, a legacy of decades of overcrowding, corruption and insufficient guards.

But San Antonio prison, renowned on Margarita Island as a relatively tranquil place where even visitors can go for sinful weekend partying, is in a class of its own.

The island itself is a departure point for drug shipments into the Caribbean and the United States, and the traffickers arrested here often end up in this prison, effectively overseeing life behind its walls with a surreal mix of hedonism and force. Some inmates walk the prison grounds grasping assault rifles.

“I was in the army for 10 years, I’ve played with guns all my life,” said Paul Makin, 33, a Briton arrested here in Porlamar for cocaine smuggling in 2009. “I’ve seen some guns in here that I’ve never seen before. AK-47s, AR-15s, M-16s, Magnums, Colts, Uzis, Ingrams. You name them, it’s in here.” CONTINUE READING:

NY TIMES ARTICLE: Where Prisoners Can Do Anything, Except Leave

NY TIMES VIDEO: Venezuela's Prison Paradise