Venezuelan prison director and five soldiers charged in prison massacre case

CARACAS (Reuters) - A prison director and five soldiers will be charged for their role in a massacre in which 47 inmates were shot dead earlier this month, Venezuela's chief prosecutor reported on Wednesday.

Instead of using tear gas to disperse the inmates during a protest at Los Llanos Penitentiary Center, members of the National Guard, which oversees prison security, "unfortunately, for containment, used firearms," Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab said.

Prison director Carlos Graterol will be charged as an accomplice in "introducing firearms into penitentiary centers" that the inmates used, Saab said. The five soldiers will be charged with intentional homicide and intentional homicide "in a degree of frustration" as well as "abuse of power."

Los Llanos is located on the outskirts of the city of Guanare, the capital of Venezuela's central Portuguesa state.

Venezuela's Public Ministry almost never reports charges against officials in cases of prison massacres or escapes, but this case garnered public attention.

The day after the massacre, the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed grave concern and called for an investigation into the killings at the prison.

Venezuelan rights groups criticized the government's silence. More than a week after the incident, in which another 69 people were injured, officials had yet to comment.

Saab said the deaths occurred because a gang leader inside the prison ordered inmates to protest "over alleged irregularities during visits." The inmates' relatives reported officials had been stealing food the families brought.

Like many of the prisoners in Venezuela's overcrowded and violent penitentiaries, Los Llanos' 4,000 inmates normally subsist on food brought by relatives. But authorities banned visits due to a coronavirus quarantine imposed in March.

The guards, desperate themselves amid national shortages, began stealing the little food that was getting behind bars, inmates said. Around midday on May 1, inmates crowded the entrance in protest and some attempted to escape, according to two witnesses and three other people familiar with the incident.

"In the absence of a response to their claim, the prison population crossed the fence," said the prosecutor, adding that four gang leaders will be charged with homicide and arms trafficking.

Deadly riots are common in Venezuela's teeming prisons, where crime groups hold control, often with penitentiary authorities’ consent, according to rights groups.


(Reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Leslie Adler)