Inmates revel in its resort-style ambience
PORLAMAR (Venezuela): On the outside, the San Antonio Prison on Margarita Island looks like any other Venezuelan penitentiary.
Soldiers in green fatigues stand at its gates. Sharp-shooters squint from watch towers. Guards cast menacing glances at visitors before searching them at the entrance.
But inside, the prison for more than 2,000 Venezuelans and foreigners held largely for drug trafficking crimes looks more like a Hugh Hefner-inspired fleshpot than a stockade for toughened smugglers.
Bikini-clad female visitors frolic under the Caribbean sun in a pool. Marijuana smoke flavours the air. Reggaeton booms from a club filled with grinding couples. Paintings of the Playboy logo adorn the pool hall. Inmates and their guests jostle to place bets at the prison's raucous cockfighting arena.
Fernando Acosta, 58, a Mexican jailed there since 2007, said: 'The Venezuelan prisoners here run the show, that makes life inside a bit easier for us all.'
It is not uncommon for armed inmates to have a certain degree of autonomy in Venezuela's penitentiaries. Prisoners with BlackBerrys and laptops have arranged drug deals, abductions and murders from their cells, the police say, a legacy of decades of overcrowding, corruption and lack of guards.
But San Antonio Prison, renowned on the island as a relatively tranquil place where visitors can go for sinful weekend partying, is in a class of its own.
The island itself is a departure point for drug shipments into the Caribbean and the United States, and traffickers arrested here often end up in this prison, effectively overseeing life behind its walls with a surreal mix of hedonism and force.
Some inmates walk the prison grounds with assault rifles. 'I was in the army for 10 years, I've played with guns all my life,' said Paul Makin, 33, a Briton arrested in Porlamar for cocaine smuggling in 2009. 'I've seen some guns in here that I've never seen before. AK-47s, AR-15s, M-16s, Magnums, Colts, Uzis, Ingrams. You name them, they're in here.'
Inmates say they owe their unusual privileges to a fellow prisoner, Teofilo Rodriguez, 40, a convicted drug trafficker who controls the arsenal that awes Makin.
Rodriguez is the inmates' top leader - a 'pran', as alpha prisoners are called.
Hoping to tackle the violence, overcrowding and other systemic issues, the government announced plans to create a new Ministry of Prisons.
President Hugo Chavez singled out San Antonio Prison for special attention during a Sunday television programme in December 2009, celebrating the construction of a new 54-unit women's annex here.
But human rights groups say corruption and institutional disarray have stymied efforts to improve conditions at many prisons.
Mr Carlos Nieto, director of A Window To Freedom, which documents rights violations in Venezuelan prisons, said: 'The state has lost control of the prisons in Venezuela.'
San Antonio's warden Luis Gutierrez refused to discuss the prison he nominally oversees.
But the inmates' chief, Rodriguez, was interviewed as bodyguards shucked oysters for him.
'There's more security in here than out on the street,' said the thick-necked long-term inmate, who barks orders into a cellphone.
Asked about his ambitions after incarceration, he said he would consider politics. 'Not to become president, because that's too far into the ocean,' he said. 'Maybe mayor.'
On weekends, the ambience inside the prison, which is bursting with spouses, romantic partners and some who simply show up looking for diversion, almost resembles those of the island's beach resorts.
Prisoners barbecue meat while sipping whisky poolside. In some cells, which are equipped with air-conditioning and TV satellite dishes, inmates relax with wives or girlfriends.
Venezuela, like other Latin American countries, allows conjugal visits. The children of some inmates swim in one of the prison's four pools.
'I find it hard to explain what life is like in here,' said Nadezhda Klinaeva, 32, a Russian serving a drug trafficking sentence in the women's annex. 'This is the strangest place I've ever been.'
NEW YORK TIMES
[Corruption carried out to the illogical conclusion.]