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In Ecuador, prisons are at the center of an unprecedented public security crisis. In Brazil or Venezuela, prison-born criminal groups are expanding across the region. In Central America, governments have taken extreme measures against the exercise of power by gangs in prisons.

Across Latin America, the different prisons that countries have set up to improve the safety of people abroad have had the opposite effect they were seeking: they have become command centers for important people. criminal organization.

Generally speaking, these gangs, which emerged from prisons and commanded, rely on drug trafficking as their main source of income. But experts believe some of them have also dabbled in other forms of crime, from racketeering to illegal mining.

“Prison is not what we imagined it to be,” said Gustavo Fondevila, an expert at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching (Cide).

“These prisons in the region They have become conductors of violence: you build a prison in one place and the crime rate in that area increases’, added Fundevila in a conversation with BBC Mundo.

“It’s a parallel state inside the prison.”

Iconic case

Prisons in Latin American countries have faced growing challenges in recent decades as cells have become overcrowded with inmates. There are no effective policies to follow this trend and bring it back.

The prison population in the Americas (excluding the U.S.) has more than doubled since 2000, according to the World Prison Briefing, a 2021 report on global prison data by the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy (ICPR, abbreviated as ICPR). ).

The study showed a 200 percent increase in prison populations in South America and a 77 percent increase in Central America.

The makeshift prison in Cali, Colombia, is packed with inmates.

Prisons in Latin America have become overcrowded in recent decades.

In Brazil, where the prison population has increased 3.5 times since the beginning of the century, a group that emerged in São Paulo prison in the 1990s has gained attention in recent decades. The largest criminal organization in the country and South America: First Capital Command (PCC).

Originally conceived as a coalition to protect prisoners, with its own charter, the PCC strengthened itself inside the prison until 2006, when it demonstrated its ability to operate in the streets with a series of violent attacks that led to the The largest city in the country was paralyzed. United States. Latino.

“Crime fuels crime” is one of the PCC’s slogans.

When authorities sent its leaders to prisons in other Brazilian states, the group expanded and recruited more members there, and now has nearly 30,000 members in and out of prisons, the study showed.

Under the leadership of Marcos Herbas Camacho (alias “Marcola”), imprisoned since 1999, the PCC expanded its drug trafficking operations By controlling the international routes of Paraguay, Bolivia and other countries area.

Brazil's First Capital Command (PCC) leader Marcos Camacho, also known as Marcora, was taken from prison by heavily armed guards.

Under the leadership of prisoners such as Makola, the Brazilian Communist Party has become Brazil’s largest criminal group and is currently being held in a high-security prison in Brasilia.

Meanwhile, he augmented his income with other criminal activities such as robbing banks or selling stolen mobile phones.

This year, a United Nations report cited reports of PCC infiltration into the Amazon and illegal gold mining operations in the Amazon region. Comando Vermelho, another powerful Brazilian drug cartel, was born out of a Rio de Janeiro prison.

“Even within prisons, groups like the PCC don’t completely limit their communication with what’s happening on the streets. When we’re talking about prisoners who have greater power and centrality in their organizations, it’s certainly possible for them to retain influence, profit (and ) corporate organization,” says Betina Barros, a sociologist and researcher at the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, to BBC World.

Indeed, the PCC is an emblematic example of what is happening on a different scale in other parts of the region.

“The effect is contradictory”

Instead of controlling the interior of the Tocolon prison, Venezuelan authorities have handed over responsibility to the prisoners themselves.

So, in addition to nightclubs, casinos and zoos, in 2014, it also appeared in prisons in the north-central part of the country. Tren de Aragua is another Latin American transnational criminal organization.

In addition to drug trafficking, the gang of nearly 3,000 members commits a variety of crimes: from extortion and kidnapping to human trafficking or killers (and illegal gold mining, such as PCC, which has links with the gang) According to Brazil authorities said).

A member of the Venezuelan National Guard conducts operations in a drug laboratory.

Drug trafficking strengthens different gangs in Latin American prisons. But that wasn’t his only illegal activity.

Hector Rustenford “Nino” Guerrero, the most visible figure on the Arragua train, “was protected within the Tocolon and controlled the entire operation from there,” said Venezuelan journalist and researcher Lorna Risquez wrote in a book about the gang. Interview in May.

The problem of overcrowding in Ecuador’s prisons is also evident, where the government last week declared a state of emergency for the prison system, which has seen more than 450 deaths since 2020 in a series of massacres.

Behind Ecuador prison violence, experts see a gang war Drugs have also spilled onto the streets, sparking homicides, shootings and assaults, and the country has become a regional drug hub.

“I would say that Ecuador is a drug state run by organized crime in prisons,” Carla Alvarez, a teacher and security researcher, said in an interview a few days ago.

A woman cries outside a prison in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Prisons have become at the center of a wave of violence that has rocked Ecuador.

Despite these extremes, the challenge of drug trafficking in prisons in other countries in the region is growing.

In Argentina, several people were arrested on charges of transporting several kilograms of cocaine under the command of the jailed leader of the drug gang “Los Monos” in the city of Rosario, and it was recently revealed that a former airline pilot Operates an active drug distribution and money laundering network at Ezeiza Prison.

In Mexico, drug lords such as Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman keep their vast illegal businesses locked up in high-security prisons, from which it is estimated that millions of extortion calls are made each year.

Some Latin American rulers have openly acknowledged the mafia’s dominance in their prisons.

Long and short weapons confiscated in a prison in Honduras.

Getty Images
Weapons of various calibers have been found in prisons in Honduras and other countries in the region.

“We have started our campaign to stop prisons from being schools of crime and to break the cycle of organized crime,” Honduran Defense Minister Jose Manuel Zelaya said a few weeks ago.

In addition to plans to build prisons for some 2,000 gang leaders in the Caribbean islands, the Honduran government has taken extreme measures to fight crime, such as curfews, imposing a state of emergency across much of the country and After several massacres, the overcrowded prison was militarized.

The “strong hand” strategy appears to have been copied from one deployed by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele to reduce the enormous power of gangs in and out of the country’s prisons, including this year for accused gangs Members open a giant prison.

With El Salvador’s homicide rate plummeting, Bukele has gained a reputation at home and is being held up as a model for some politicians in the region to emulate.

Prisoners at the Secote megaprison in El Salvador.

President of El Salvador, Getty Images
Bukele’s prison policies have drawn international attention.

But some have warned that the country has paid too high a price for restoring public safety, with erosion of civil liberties, abuse of power by security forces and concentration of power in the hands of the president.

Others recall that in Latin America, betting simply for punishment often turned out to be self-defeating.

“With a high rate of victimization, people want strong help. It’s completely understandable: he wants to take to the streets without fear”, says Fundevila.

“However, putting everyone in the area in jail for anything is very wrong and has a paradoxical effect: we put people in jail to keep calm And these people return to society from prisons, and the crimes are becoming more and more serious and complicated.“.

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