Venezuela Dismantles Prison That Housed Casinos, Restaurants, and a Zoo

Posted on: September 21, 2023, 06:48h. 

Last updated on: September 21, 2023, 01:08h.

The inmates of the Aragua Penitentiary Center in Venezuela practically lived like kings, with access to gambling halls, restaurants, a zoo, and more. That all came to an end on Wednesday, after police and military personnel entered the prison and took over.

The Tocorón prison in Venezuela as seen from a nearby hill
The Tocorón prison in Venezuela as seen from a nearby hill. The prison was run like a country club for inmates, complete with a casino and a zoo. (Image: Que Pasa)

Inside the Tocorón prison, police and soldiers confirmed what the rumors had suggested for years. They saw flamingos, a jaguar, and other exotic animals in a makeshift zoo set up by and for the inmates.

The prisoners also had regular access to cell phones, the internet, television, air conditioners, and more. There was even a nightclub called Tokio. The police and military commissions searched inside the prison and discovered a room full of bitcoin mining machines which were used by prisoners, reported local media outlet El Periodiquito de Aragua.

Once the authorities – a complement of 11K officers and soldiers – regained control of the prison, the authorities of Venezuela’s Ministry for the Penitentiary Service began the census of the 1,800 prisoners. It then transferred them to the prison centers in the states of Lara, Carabobo Táchira, Barinas, Guárico, and the Capital District.

The census revealed some unsettling news, as well. Missing were Héctor “El Niño” Guerrero, the ringleader of an organized crime gang called “Aragua Train,” his lieutenants and other inmates. They had escaped through tunnels they were able to construct underneath the prison.

Clandestinely in Plain Sight

Thanks to several reports and investigations from different media since 2017, images of the establishment were revealed. They showed parties with guest DJs, singers, and even exotic dancers.

Many of the parties are even themed. That is, they can enjoy anything from a costume party to one with a neon theme, where everyone dresses the same way. Visitors, who include relatives and partners of the inmates, regularly attended the festivities.

What was also verified during the siege, thanks to recordings from the police, is that within Tocorón, there is a restaurant with cooks and waiters, swimming pools, sports fields that include a softball field, and even a horse racing betting center. It was complete with satellite TV to watch the races.

What isn’t clear, even from public comments made by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, is how the prison was able to continue operating the way it had for so long. Many of the inmates lived with their families inside the facility, apparently with no proper supervision by the Ministry for the Penitentiary Service.

There were no reports of deaths or injuries of the inmates after the government-led siege. Videos from the scene show fires burning in private shacks where some of the prisoners lived after several hours of detonations, and the mobilization of tanks and armored vehicles from Caracas.

The situation is reminiscent of similar ones that occurred recently in Colombia. There, a prison, La Picota, became well-known for its repeated booze-filled parties and illegal casinos before the authorities intervened.

Man On the Run

Some of the escaped convicts have already been recaptured. They had tasted freedom for a short time before their luck ran out. Now, the authorities are sending them back to prison and will interrogate them to try to locate the rest of the escapees.

However, authorities are most interested in recapturing Guerrero, who’s considered one of Venezuela’s most dangerous criminals.

In 2010, Guerrero, then 27, arrived at the facility after being accused of various crimes. Two years later, he made his first escape while waiting to appear in court on the accusations, and remained free for four years.

In 2016, after the authorities caught up with him, he appeared in court on charges of murder, theft, carrying weapons, and escape. Since then, Tocorón was his home, a place where he continued to lead his illegal operations and even expand the organization.

Guerrero isn’t the founder of the criminal enterprise, which has operators in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia. José Álvarez Rojas, alias “el Chino Pradera,” founded it in 2013, but was killed in 2016 during a shootout with police. That led to Guerrero taking over.

Aragua Train is reportedly behind some of the most atrocious crimes in South America and has a history of violence that rivals that of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. What began as a construction union in Venezuela in 2009 has become a gang focused on extortion, drug and human trafficking, assassinations, and more. There’s nothing it won’t do if the price is right.

Not surprisingly, Guerrero may have received notice that the authorities were about to raid the prison. This allowed him extra time to get away, and with the reach the gang has in Latin America, recapturing him will prove difficult.