Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela prison stand-off: Families' anxiety grows

Relatives wait for news as some inmates are bussed out on Sunday and a stand-off continues in one part of El Rodeo jail
Image caption Families are unsure when they will see their imprisoned relatives

Relatives of inmates in Venezuela's El Rodeo prison complex are anxious, desperate and angry.

And they want one thing above all else: information.

On 12 June, a riot in one section of the jail, El Rodeo I, left some 20 people dead.

Since then, the authorities have been trying to retake control of the prison in Guatire, some 50km (31 miles) east of the capital, Caracas.

And since then, family members have been gathering about a kilometre from the prison's entrance.

It is the closest they can get, as National Guard troops are blocking the road.

Relatives' anxiety increased on Friday when the authorities sent a 5,000-strong force into the jail.

Officials say they found weapons, grenades and drugs as they took over El Rodeo I, while two members of the security forces and at least one prisoner were killed in clashes.

The authorities say they are now back in charge of most of the prison but some inmates are still holding out.

'Is he dead?'

While the situation inside the jail remains unclear, outside rumours abound.

Image caption Prisoners were moved to other jails across Venezuela

On Sunday, some 500 people were on the access road to the jail. The majority were women - the mothers, wives or girlfriends of the prisoners.

Some have spent days here, sleeping as best they can and wherever they can.

They say they will not leave until they know what is happening within the prison walls, some of which are blackened by a fire reportedly caused by an electrical fault.

Yuselis Paez has not left the area since Thursday. Her husband, Hector Pacheco, has been in El Rodeo for a year.

"On Friday, he called me at 4am and said the Greens [National Guard troops] were going in and that the prisoners were going to give themselves up," she said.

But since then she has heard nothing from her husband.

"I don't know if he's dead or alive. And when we try to ask, they [the troops] just fire tear gas at us. Or sometimes 'just' water cannon."

Ms Paez has toothpaste smeared on her face. Like many of the women who have spent days here, she uses it to lessen the effects of the tear gas.

Others cover their faces with handkerchiefs.

Ms Paez's husband was in El Rodeo I, but she does not know if he is one of the 2,500 prisoners who were transferred early on Sunday to a number of other prisons in the country.

Image caption Venezuela's severely crowded jails see frequent disturbances

All morning, inmates were bussed out.

The authorities say the measure is temporary and the prisoners will be brought back in a fortnight.

Relatives are sceptical. They also believe there have been more casualties but information is scarce.

Electricity has been cut off, so prisoners are using the mobiles phones they have access to sparingly.

Due for release

Moises Hernandez's 22-year-old son is in El Rodeo II, where the stand-off has been continuing.

"If he is in the mortuary, it pains my soul but I'll go find him to bury him. If he's injured, I'll go to hospital to look after him," Mr Hernandez said.

"No representative of the state has shown up. They don't give us information. They say how many National Guard troops have been injured but nothing more."

Yulimar Rojas is waiting outside El Rodeo for news of her husband, Jose Trujillo, who is in Rodeo II.

Trujillo has been imprisoned for two-and-a-half years, and she has visited him every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

The last Ms Rojas heard from him was a text message on Saturday afternoon that said: "I'm OK."

Her husband had had his sentence reduced for having studied inside jail.

"He was supposed to get out on Friday. Who knows when he'll get out now," she said.

Translated from the original Spanish by Liz Throssell, BBC News.

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