Radio Interview on Venezuela Jail Fire and Sanctions

Yesterday I talked to Jerome McDonnell of WBEZ Worldview about the tragic jail fire in Valencia as well as the recent sanctions rolled out by Switzerland and Panama. Below I’ve included the notes I wrote, along with some links, in preparation for the interview. Geoff Ramsey was also interviewed by the AP yesterday about the prison fire.

Fire in the Jail of the Carabobo Police

  • Dramatic prison violence is common. In January 2013, 60 prisoners and one guard were killed in a riot in the Uribana prison in the state of Lara. A massacre in August of last year in Amazonas killed 39. A prison fire in 1994 killed over a hundred. Investigations rarely lead to any clear resolution.
  • The Carcel de Carabobo was not a prison but a police jail. These are supposedly temporary jails for recently arrested people, while they wait for their trail. The population is usually younger, their crimes are minor—mainly robbery or car theft, and 80% have not had their day in court.
  • They are often considered safer and less desirable than prisons and inmates’ families often pay bribes to keep them there as long as possible.
  • The jail had 378 prisoners, including 248 regular prisoners and 130 police officers in another wing. In a space for 80 people.
  • Families are saying that not all of them died from fire or smoke, some have gunshot wounds or other injuries. It happened on the morning of Wednesday, March 28. It seems clear that as a result of a confrontation with guards there was a riot that led either the prisoners or the guards set fire to objects that then went out of control.
  • Venezuela has 50-60k prisoners in a system with a capacity of roughly half that. This overcrowding is the result not just of not building enough jails, but of a completely dysfunctional justice system. Over the past decade hundreds of judges have been replaced by provisional judges without tenure, which means they can be removed at any time, and are completely dependent. In that context they have little autonomy and little motivation to get through their cases. As a result the rate of trial fulfillment in Venezuela is one of the lowest in the region. You keep your job by demonstrating loyalty to the party, not by expeditiously carrying out your job. The same is true of prosecutors—the great majority are provisional and have no autonomy.

Sanctions

  • Switzerland froze the accounts of seven officials because of human rights violations and the breakdown of the rule of law and democratic institutions. They essentially apply the EU sanctions to Switzerland (which is not a member of the EU). This is very important because of Switzerland’s tradition of neutrality and because it is the preeminent place to park illicit money because of its tradition of banking secrecy.
  • Panama emitted a list of 55 of the most important officials and enterprises in Venezuela. This was justified as their being high risk for money laundering and other illicit activities. The effect is to freeze their accounts and prohibit entry. Mariano de Alba argues they effectively found a way to carryout sanctions within their legislation.
  • The first Latin American country to do so, which is itself an important breakthrough. And Panama is important for the same reason Switzerland is, indeed it is often called the “Switzerland of the Americas.” 2 years ago the Panama Papers showed extensive financial involvement of Venezuelan officials in Panamanian offshore and shell companies.