“By maliciously postponing a sentence, arbitrary denegation of hearings creates powerful economic incentives for all kinds of pay-offs, at all levels of the system, from courtrooms to cell blocks.”
There is an ancient Roman saying: Fiat justitia, ruat caelum: “Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall.”

In most parts of Latin America justice is seldom done and, sadly enough, nobody seems to care if the skies fall. As I write this article, 314 inmates of various Venezuelan prisons have been reported killed during deadly riots so far this year. Only last week, 14 inmates were killed in different riotous incidents. “A slack week,” a distressed human rights activist bitterly told me.

More than a decade ago, in January, 1994, rampaging prisoners actually set fire and mutilated rivals at Venezuela’s Maracaibo National Jail, killing 103. Built in the early fifties for 800 inmates, more than 3000 prisoners inhabited the Maracaibo Jail when the week-long hellish riots broke out. Turning what are meant to be correctional facilities into Dantesque slaughterhouses is not a local phenomenon. In fact, it has become more and more characteristically Latin American. A brief survey of recent examples illustrates how extended it is throughout the region.

In April, 2003, inmates at El Porvenir prison farm, in northern Honduras, were forced by merciless circumstances to battle heavily armed gang members, leaving 69 people dead. A government report, issued after a short inquest, affirms that guards committed most of the slayings, thus challenging initial statements made by prison authorities that put the blame on the inmates. Ironically, the prison’s name,—El Porvenir—is Spanish for “future.”

A year later, in San Pedro Sula, another Honduran locality, gang members using gasoline bombs set a whole cell block ablaze. At least 103 out of 186 inmates in the cell block were killed as prison officers stood by apparently cowed by the gang’s superior firepower. The official report blamed the fire on a short circuit.

Three months ago, rival gangs engaged in a deadly fight within a Higuey, Dominican Republic prison. Again, prison officers stepped back and looked on as the gangs set the facility on fire, killing 133 people. A jammed entrance thwarted any rescue effort.

Deadly prison riots plague Latin American poor countries as evenly as they do in blessed enclaves of thriving economies, such as Sao Paolo, by far the largest Latin American city. Being so an extended and anguishing problem, many Brazilian writers, pop musicians, playwrights and moviemakers have focused their work on this disturbing symptom of society’s failure.

For more on Héctor Babenco, see his biography page in Wikipedia.

Héctor Babenco—whose 1985 Oscar-winning movie “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” gained him the cognoscenti’s praise and large audiences the world over—has masterfully depicted the daily inception, the slow combustion of human conflicts within an overcrowded facility that led to the 1992 massacre occurred in the infamous prison of Carandiru, in Sao Paolo state.

The real life experiences of doctor Drauzio Varella inside a dreadful penitentiary, chronicled by him in Estaçao Carandiru, a best-selling book, is the core of Babenco’s 2003 smash hit, “Carandiru.”

Shot in the very same prison where the bloody events occurred, shortly before it was demolished, “Carandiru” surveys with uncompromising realism the many motives the prisoners had to start a small revolution of sorts.

The prison official’s inconsiderate mismanagement of an AIDS epidemics amid an overcrowded inmate population triggered the riot. As it went totally out of control, a special unit of the Military Police stormed the facility. Of the 111 prisoners killed, 102 died of gunshots fired by Military Police. Nine of them had elrady died of stab wounds inflicted by other prisoners before the police entered the facility. No special unit agent was killed.

Many experts have tried to explain why Latin American prison riots are so gruesomely deadly. Most of them concur with the idea that prison riots, as horrifying as they can be, are nothing more than a by-product of Latin America’s rampant judiciary’s corruption.

For more on Gabriel Zaid, see Ibsen Martinez’s recent Econlib article, “Unproductive Progress”.

Mexican poet and essayist Gabriel Zaid has pointed out that corruption is a modern market. So far as it is a monetary market, relationships tend to become impersonal, and resale, wholesale, and retailing of the ‘concessions’ are broadly accepted. Nowhere is all this more evident than in some Latin American countries’ prison systems where the most sought-after “merchandise” is a piece of due process: a timely sentence. Inmates actually have to pay just to hear charges against them. Until then, the time spent as detainees in “el depósito“—”the depot”—will simply not be accounted in their favor once they get a sentence.

Most Latin American prison inmates become almost “permanent detainees” as criminal courts deliberately put off hearings during which charges should be duly read. In some of our countries, people who have not yet heard charges can make up to 60% of the overall inmate’s population. Arbitrary denegation of hearings, thus maliciously postponing a sentence, creates powerful economic incentives for all kinds of pay-offs, at all levels of the system, from courtrooms to cell blocks.

Exacting bribes from the inmate population—inmates often come from extended poor families that also end up being extorted—is called la industria del preso: “the prisoner’s industry”.

La industria del preso is an intricate web in which violent drug gangs may interact with corrupt officers on the outside. This web may entangle judges, state attorneys, City Hall officials, and even anti-drug “czars”. In any given Latin American city its payroll may rank in the hundreds. Rioting comes up almost naturally as a last resort to force la industria del preso to comply with the due process owed to detainees by constitutional mandate.

Thus, an inmate’s relatives coming into a prison compound on visiting days are very likely to be taken as hostages by upset prisoners who violently request a long overdue hearing. Sometimes visiting relatives join in hunger strikes with the inmates or refuse to leave the facilities for weeks on end until a hearing is held. Macabre self-mutilations have been reported as an extreme form of protest. Inmates have found themselves in front of TV camera crews while a riot is going on within the prison walls. Sewing their lips together to dramatize the silence of those forsaken by society is a “favorite act” that originated in Central America some time ago and now favored by Peruvian, Brazilian or Venezuelan inmates.

Firearms—including semi-automatic assault weapons and even hand granades—hard drugs, liquor, home appliances, especial medications and even intimate encounters between inmates and their spouses are subject to tariff by la industria del preso.

Left unchecked to its own sinister dynamics, la industria del preso can be outgrown and, even worse, outmaneuvered by its most explosive component, namely the prison gangs. This is what happened in Sao Paolo last May, when gangster squads plunged the city into a state of terror for days. Their incarcerated boss, a notorious bank robber, wanted to resist his transfer to a high-security prison.

He ordered to carry out more than 293 attacks against police precincts, murdering 41 police officers. He also called for mutinies in some 70 gang-controlled prisons all over Sao Paolo state. His men set more than 80 buses ablaze and fired gunshots at Sao Paolo’s fire department stations. Stores and schools closed as scared city residents would not leave their homes. In response, police officers shot 107 suspects during a week of terror. The final toll reached 133 people killed.

In the end, the Sao Paolo state’s government gave in to the gangster’s demands. Incredibly, a government delegation visited the mafia boss in his prison and promised to provide imprisoned gangsters with TV sets and permit them to watch the World Cup soccer games in the company of their girlfriends and wives.

A decade ago, a host of government officials throughout the region advocated a new “rule of law paradigm” aimed at merging law and development. In this they followed what many a distinguished foreign advisor had told them.

Though half-heartedly, many law reforms were attempted during the Nineties with disparate results. In my view, this “rule of law orthodoxy”—as it has been dubbed by some—has been totally ineffectual for any purpose of improving ordinary people’s chances of having justice timely and satisfactorily done.

The rule of law paradigm promoted by so many reformers throughout Latin America is the same one principally advocated by multilateral development banks. It understandably concentrates in building business-friendly legal frameworks in our countries. Indeed, foreign investment and legal assurances of a business-friendly ambiance can conceivably help reduce poverty in a significant measure, but they certainly have not been enough to spur equality —i.e., justice for all—not even in those of our countries where a few paltry reforms have been advanced.

Timely justice is indeed the basic function of good governance. Governance is every bit as desirable as any investment-friendly legal frame. Especially in tempestuously unequal Latin American countries. But it cannot be attained without justice being done in a thoroughly democratic way.

This may explain in part why a ruthless incarcerated bank-robber can put the largest Latin American city on her knees by making phone calls from what for him is the safest imaginable place: a Brazilian prison.

Fiat justitia, ruat caelum.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.