The recent discovery of a mass grave with 15 bodies – several of them beheaded – inside the General Penitentiary of Venezuela in Guárico is a gruesome reminder that the government still hasn’t properly investigated years of serious crimes committed in its prisons. The bodies were discovered by workers who were updating the prison’s infrastructure.
Corruption, weak security, deteriorating infrastructure, overcrowding, insufficient staffing, and poorly trained guards allow armed gangs to exercise effective control over inmate populations. In such a context, and without adequate investigations, it is hard to know if prison guards or other authorities are responsible – directly or through inaction – for the 15 deaths. Either way, the bodies speak loudly to the government’s failure to fulfill its basic obligation to protect the lives of people in custody.
Consider the case of Francisco Dionel Guerrero Larez, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for aggravated robbery in 1997. Twelve years later, he went missing while serving his sentence at the General Penitentiary. Authorities said he escaped – with only one year of his sentence to go. They provided no evidence. An anonymous caller told Guerrero’s family that he’d been murdered, and other inmates said he’d been dismembered and buried inside the prison.
Guerrero’s family and the nonprofit Venezuelan Observatory of Prisons (OVP) took the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in December 2009 ordered the Venezuelan government to find and protect Guerrero. The UN Committee Against Torture added its voice six years later, urging the government to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of Guerrero’s disappearance, and to prosecute, try, and punish those responsible. The government has by all appearances ignored both the regional Court’s order and the global Committee’s urging.
The OVP has reported hearing from other inmates that there was at least one other mass grave in the General Penitentiary where Guerrero was allegedly buried.
On March 11, the office of Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz announced an investigation to determine the identity and death circumstances of the 15 corpses at the General Penitentiary. If she wants to be taken seriously, she should also acknowledge past failures – including the seven-year-old Guerrero case – and publicly commit to investigating all crimes committed in Venezuelan prisons.