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LATIN AMERICA | 22-09-2023 19:06

Venezuela takes prison from gang, seizes bitcoin machines, rocket launchers

Venezuelan authorities have taken control of the Tocorón prison, which was overrun by members of the Tren de Aragua gang, who were able to transform the prison into their own 'playground.'

Bitcoin mining machines and rocket launchers were among the astonishing contraband found in a Venezuelan prison recaptured from a gang that had turned it into a playground kitted out with a pool, a nightclub and a zoo.

Venezuelan authorities showed off the loot on Thursday after seizing control of the Tocorón prison in a massive operation involving more than 11,000 police and soldiers backed up by tanks and armored vehicles.

One soldier was killed in the operation, which had been planned for more than a year, said Interior and Justice Minister Remigio Ceballos.

The facility hit in Wednesday's raid had served as the headquarters of the Tren de Aragua gang that operates in Venezuela and other Latin American countries.

Ceballos said sniper rifles, explosives, rocket launchers and grenades were seized, along with cocaine, marijuana and expensive motorbikes.

The wives or girlfriends of inmates who had been living inside with them were kicked out.

At a press conference outside the prison, authorities displayed buckets of bullets, heaps of machine gun ammunition belts and machines used to mine the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

On Wednesday, AFP saw officers carrying televisions, microwaves and air conditioners out of the jail as angry women outside shouted, "That's ours!".

Ceballos said zoo animals kept at the facility died in a fire started by prisoners. He did not say which creatures had lived there, or how many.

The minister added that four prison guards were arrested as suspected accomplices of the gang members who had lived it up behind bars.

"There will be no impunity. We will act against all the criminals and accomplices," said Ceballos, hailing a "successful operation that allowed us to strike a blow against criminal groups."

 

 'A kind of slavery' 

After declaring it had taken control of the prison, the government began evacuating its 1,600 inmates to other locations.

On Wednesday, the government said some prisoners had managed to flee during the clampdown.

Ceballos said the gang leaders had mistreated other prisoners and kept them in "a kind of slavery."

Surrounded by riot police, dozens of relatives gathered outside the facility for news of the inmates being transferred.

"Where is my son?" cried Doris Colmenares, who said he had escaped during Wednesday's raid but turned himself in shortly thereafter. 

Tren de Aragua, Venezuela's most powerful home-grown gang, is involved in crime countrywide and has spread its tentacles to Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia.

According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Rísquez, it has some 5,000 members.

The gang emerged a decade ago, and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and illegal gold mining. 

The InSight Crime think tank said the gang is also a major player in migrant smuggling.

Rísquez said Tocoron had been entirely in the hands of the gang and described the prison as a "hotel" for the gang leaders, with a bank, baseball field, and a restaurant.

by Esteban Rojas & Margioni Bermúdez, AFP

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