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Inmates In A Venezuelan Prison Build A World Of Their Own

At this prison in Barinas, Venezuela, the inmates are in charge. (NPR)

In Latin America — home to the vast majority of the world's most violent cities — it's said the only part of a prison a guard controls is the gate, leaving convicts to fend for themselves inside, even running criminal networks from behind bars.

I wanted to understand how a prison like that worked, and I was in luck: A colleague knew a man serving time a Venezuelan prison. The prisoner got in touch with the leader of the inmates, who sent word that he'd be willing to see us.

So on the appointed day we drove to the prison in the far western city of Barinas. At first, a guard at the gate was reluctant to let me, a foreigner, in. But after we said which inmate we were meeting, he let us pass.

Inside, guards come twice a day to count the inmates. Most of the rest of the time, the prisoners deal with a different authority, the man whose name opened the door for us: Wilmer Lopez.

A prison leader is commonly called the pran, or crime boss. Lopez prefers a gentler title: lider positivo, or positive leader.

Creating Order

He took us on a tour around the prison buildings, in which the inmates have slowly built their own world.

Lopez says he governs these men with the aid of a handful of others. Some of his aides, with bulges under their shirts, followed Lopez around. We spotted an inmate high on a wall, standing guard with what appeared to be a long gun.

The inmates have their own security perimeter. On the day we visited, the guards at the front gate did not have a metal detector. The inmates' security checkpoint did — and the machine went off when Lopez stepped through.

Maybe that's a sign of a high-crime country when even convicts need so much security. Last year a rival group of inmates took over one of the buildings here. The National Guard moved in eventually and removed them after a three-day battle.

When we asked what relations are like between guards and inmates these days, Lopez spoke of mutual respect.

"The guards live in the same reality we do," he says. "They want to go home to their families, and be alive tomorrow."

How did Lopez become the leader?

"It's a question I often ask myself," he says.

According to court records, Lopez went to prison in 2002. He was in his early 30s then, a former army sergeant who'd turned to crime. One of four men who stole a car and murdered the driver with a 9 mm gun, Lopez was sentenced to 20 years.

By about 2008, Lopez says he'd fought himself into a leadership position. He says he was a violent inmate in his early years but insists he wants to rule through reason now, applying what he calls "our internal law" — that inmates must take responsibility for their actions in this crowded prison.

The prison was built for about 400 inmates but has around 1,450 prisoners. Such overcrowding is normal in Venezuela. The government could do more to help us, Lopez says. And yet many prisoners help themselves.

A Reflection Of The World Outside

There's construction going on, inmates building rooms on the roofs of old buildings. Some of the wealthier inmates have private rooms with air conditioners, and gray satellite dishes propped overhead. There are a pool hall and a cockfighting ring and shrines to Catholic saints and figures in the Santeria religion.

It's not clear how the prisoners pay for these things. Authorities have described other Venezuelan prisons as centers of drug trading or extortion schemes conducted by phone.

And if the situation inside the prison seems insane, Lopez says, it just reflects the world outside.

The barometer of a society is how it treats prisoners, he says. Justice applies only to those who have no money.

In the afternoon, a squad of guardsmen arrived. They instruct the men to move one by one, from one side of the courtyard to the other.

Lopez says in some ways his society is more orderly than what's outside. Outside the prison walls, Venezuela is politically divided, convulsed by a disputed election.

His prison is quiet. At least today.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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At this prison in Venezuela the inmates  are in charge.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. When you look at a map of the world's most violent cities, you will see almost all of them are in Latin America. We've been hearing about the causes and consequences of Latin America's crime on MORNING EDITION. Steve Inskeep has been in Venezuela and to better understand the crime on the street, he paid a visit to one of the regions' notorious prisons.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Those prisons are legendary in many countries. It's said the guards control only the gates, leaving convicts to fend for themselves - even running criminal networks from inside. In Venezuela, efforts to inspect prisons have led to battles between guards and well-armed inmates, leaving dozens dead.

I wanted to understand how a prison like that worked, and I was in luck. A colleague knew a man serving time in a Venezuelan prison. The prisoner got in touch with the leader of the inmates; he was said to be a onetime soldier, convicted of murder. And that prison leader sent word that he would be willing to see us. Of course, we'd have to come to him. So on the appointed day, we drove up to the prison, in the far western city of Barinas.

The street that we're on, you can see many colors on the buildings, brightly painted buildings. You see blues and greens and oranges over this way. But the side with the prison is solid gray. You've got a wall of concrete, maybe 10-feet high; topped by a chain link fence; topped, in turn, by barbed wire.

The steel gate looked secure, manned by National Guard troops with rifles. There's a sign here that says a list of objects prohibited inside this establishment, for example firearms. Yet I knew that visitors inside Venezuelan prisons routinely see guns and drugs.

At this prison gate, a guard was initially reluctant to let in a foreigner. But after we said just which inmate we were asking for, he let us pass. Nobody accompanied us as we turned a corner into a tangle of long, low buildings.

So we've just walked past a little shrine to several saints, Catholic saints, and figures in the Santeria religion. Near that shrine, the inmate leader was waiting for us. His name was Wilmer Lopez. He didn't look so threatening, a man with average build, a checked shirt, and close-cropped hair. He took us on a tour around the prison buildings, in which the inmates have slowly built their own world.

Hundreds of men, most of them shirtless, stand or sit around the edges of a court - a sort of combined basketball court and soccer field. A few young men are kicking around a greenish ball in the middle of it. This patio is surrounded by concrete housing, concrete rooms, guards come in here twice a day to count the inmates.

Most of the rest of the time, the prisoners deal with a different authority: Wilmer Lopez.

How many people live in this patio?

WILMER LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Fourteen hundred fifty, he says, in a prison built for about 400. Such overcrowding is normal in Venezuela. Lopez says he governs these men with the aid of a handful of others. Some of his aides followed Lopez around, men with bulges under their shirts. Once we spotted an inmate high on a wall, standing guard with what appeared to be a long gun.

The inmates have their own security perimeter. On the day we visited, the guards at the front gate had no metal detector. The inmates' security checkpoint did have a metal detector...

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

INSKEEP: ...which went off when Lopez stepped through.

What do you use it for?

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Lopez explains, through our interpreter, that he used to have a rival for leadership who was getting weapons from outside.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once, a national guard was helping to pass a box of grenadas.

INSKEEP: Grenades, a box of grenades.

INTERPRETER: A box of grenades.

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: Now Lopez relies on this airport-style detector, which he had no trouble getting delivered. Maybe that's a sign of a high-crime country when even convicts need so much security.

Last year, a rival group of inmates took over one of the buildings here. But eventually the National Guard moved in and removed them after a three-day battle.

(Spanish spoken)

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: When we asked what relations are like between guards and inmates these days, Wilmer Lopez spoke of mutual respect. He said the guards live in the same reality we do. They want to go home to their families and be alive tomorrow.

How did you become the leader as opposed to someone else?

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: I often ask myself that question, he said.

According to court records, Senor Lopez went to prison in 2002. He was in his early 30's then, a former army sergeant who'd turned to crime. He was one of four men who stole a car and murdered the driver with a nine-millimeter pistol. Police killed two of the robbers and caught Wilmer Lopez, who was sentenced to 20 years.

But Lopez says that by about 2008, he had fought himself into a position of leadership in the prison. He says he was a violent inmate in his early years, but insists he wants to rule through reason now. He applies what he calls our internal law. Men must take responsibility for their actions in this crowded prison, where many sleep shoulder to shoulder in long hallways.

I see one mattress, another mattress, after - (Spanish spoken).

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: The government could do more to help us, Senor Lopez says. And yet, many prisoners help themselves.

There's construction going on, inmates building rooms on the roofs of old buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAIL GUN)

INSKEEP: And building cabinets using nail guns.

Some of the wealthier inmates have private rooms with air conditioners, and gray satellite dishes propped overhead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Direct TV.

INSKEEP: At a store selling fresh fruit, Wilmer Lopez takes a slice of watermelon and breaks the shell to get the last of it.

Nearby, our interpreter notes, is a two-story tiki hut with a sound system.

INTERPRETER: This is when the family arrives they can come together and they can spend time in here playing.

INSKEEP: The tiki hut is next to the pool hall, which is next to the cockfighting ring. It's not clear how the prisoners pay for these things. Authorities have described other Venezuelan prisons as centers of drugs trading or extortion schemes conducted by phone. A prison leader is commonly called the pran or crime boss.

Lopez insists he is a different kind of leader. He uses a gentler title, which is visible on a sign on the door of the computer room: Lider Positivo. Positive Leader. He says he supports infrastructure improvements, such as the one we found as we walked along a rooftop.

It's kind of a rooftop gymnasium. It's got weights in here - weight machines, and class of about a dozen men are doing exercises steadily, calisthenics.

And if this situation seems insane, Wilmer Lopez says it just reflects the world outside the gates.

What do you mean?

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: The barometer of a society is how they treat prisoners, he said. Justice applies only to those who have no money.

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: There are layers of society, he says. And prison experts say he's right. The pran or leader is at the top. Below him are prisoners who serve as clergy and the leader's lieutenants. Below them are police informants. At the bottom are prisoners with no friends or money, like the shirtless men in the courtyard waiting for the afternoon count.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken)

INSKEEP: About four o'clock, a squad of guardsmen arrives. They instruct the men to move, one by one, from one side of the courtyard to the other. The prison leader Wilmer Lopez, says in some ways, his society is more orderly than what's outside.

The country outside the walls is politically divided right now, convulsed by a disputed election. His prison is quiet. At least today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: That's MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep, who has been in Venezuela. You can see video and a photo of the Barinas prison at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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