6 of Latin America’s Scariest Prisons

In Latin America, prisoners don’t get to enjoy the luxury of cable TV, “yard time,” or free medical services. Prisons in the Southern Hemisphere mainly serve as breeding grounds for corruption, crime, and violence. The police tend to wield their power with little oversight supervision, and as incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the last several years, many jail sites are overcrowded nightmares with little to no basic human rights nor safety guaranteed.

For a glimpse of the horror that so many criminals face in Latin America, here are some of the scariest prisons in the region.

San Juan de Lurigancho – Lima, Peru

Ever seen National Geographic’s “Locked Up Abroad”? One of the most cringe-worthy episodes takes place right in this prison after a young American guy decides to test his fate with the South American cocaine trade.

san juan de lurigancho prison

Coined as the toughest prison in South America, San Juan de Lurigancho is past max capacity, holding 7,000 inmates in an institution built for 2,500. The crime doesn’t stop once prisoners enter these decrepit walls; they fester around the prison, mainly unsupervised, selling stolen technological gadgets to even drugs and committing acts of violence with little to no repercussions. Seeing prostitutes, referred to as “nurses,” is commonplace as well in this chaotic nightmare of a jail.

As journalist Robert Saviano describes, San Juan de Lurigancho is “a city within a city in a country that is currently the major producer of cocaine, and entering it means catching a glimpse into the depths of hell.”

El Rodeo – Guatire, Venezuela

Does jail time serve as punishment for criminals? El Rodeo might have gone overboard in this department. This prison was actually the scene of an all-out bloodbath just a few years ago.

El Rodeo prison

While Hugo Chavez was in power, crime rates skyrocketed, and prisons inevitably swelled with inmates. The country was in havoc, and El Rodeo just served as the pressure point in the boiling pot that was Venezuelan society.

On June 12, 2011, a normal visitor’s day in El Rodeo, violence broke out between rival gangs crammed into the unequipped facility. This fight was not like any other prison fight, though. It lasted an entire month until prisoners surrendered to government forces on July 13.

After 27 deaths, 70 casualties, and even more prison escapes, the Venezuelan National Guard had reestablished control and seized seven automatic FAL rifles, thousands of rounds of ammunition, eight hand grenades, 20 other guns, bullets, 45kg of cocaine, 12kg of marijuana and 100 mobile phones.

Carandiru – Brazil

carandiru prison in brazil

Though it’s no longer active, Carandiru was a terrifying prison not for the crime between inmates but rather against them. The Carandiru Tragedy of 1992 remains prominent in the memory of human rights activists, where internal riots after a soccer game triggered the prison guards to unleash incessant gunfire on the prisoners. The riot police force killed 111 detainees that day, including many bystanders who weren’t even involved in the riot.

But the Carandiru Tragedy wasn’t a random attack; the prison had notoriously abused control over its prisoners for decades. Amnesty International finally pushed the facility to close in 2002 after publishing reports on gross human rights violations, but not until after Carandiru had claimed the lives of an astonishing 1,300 prisoners over the course of its 46 years in operation.

Villa Devoto – Buenos Aires, Argentina

villa devoto prison argentina

In a society so advanced that it’s even known as “The Paris of the South,” it’s shocking to discover that Buenos Aires hides a prison so brutal. It is like traveling back to the years of Argentina’s military dictatorship.

Argentine law allows prisoners to be held in solitary confinement for a maximum of 23 hours, but Villa Devoto couldn’t care less about that. Cases have arisen of inmates being thrown into “the SHU” for weeks, oftentimes deprived of food and water.

But the guards don’t just neglect the prisoners in Villa Devoto; they torture them using techniques made infamous by the country’s dictatorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Stories have surfaced of Villa Devoto guards beating inmates with batons and hoses and forcing them to take ice-cold showers. Even worse, the “submarine” method forces prisoners’ heads under water until they all but let go of their last breath; the electric prod machine sends electric current to the prisoners, usually administered in the most sensitive parts of the body.

Taubaté Jail – São Paulo, Brazil

Brazil’s most powerful gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), lives, breathes and thrives strictly within the prison system. They formed in this jail in 1993 as a vengeful reaction to the Carandiru Tragedy months earlier.

Since the early 90s, the PCC has extended its location to nearby prisons and its focus to include extortion, drug-running, prostitution, and murder. By 2006, the group was so strong that it brought the entire city of São Paulo to a standstill after the government ordered a crackdown on PCC leaders.

La Sabaneta – Venezuela

Neglect is this prison’s most dangerous weapon due to overcrowding and a weak system that can’t support the overflow of inmates; La Sabaneta in Venezuela subjects inmates to scarce food, hardly any medical services, and insufficient services.

With approximately one guard for every 150 inmates, prisoners at La Sabaneta are pretty much left to their own devices. And with barely any food, competition for survival runs rampant, and prisoners use whatever makeshift weapons they can create to battle. In 1994, 108 prisoners died at the mercy of internal violence. Just a year later, in 1995, 196 inmates were killed, and 624 more were wounded over the unsupervised and unpunished chaos.

Moral of the story: don’t get arrested in Latin America. Got it?

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