By day, Venezuelans could play baseball, visit zoos with horses, pigs and flamingos, and saunter round market streets selling food and wares as their children played in parks.
By night, they could drink beer, place bets and go nightclubbing. But this was not a holiday resort or town. It was one of Venezuela’s most notorious prisons controlled by the powerful Tren de Aragua gang.
It was this compound where 11,000 security officers took ‘total control’ this week by clearing the prison, where 300 families lived, with weapons and armoured vehicles.
The prison was used as the headquarters of the Tren de Aragua, a gang running a criminal enterprise across several Latin American countries including Colombia, Chile and Peru.
For nearly 20 years, its members engaged in illegal gold mining, human trafficking, prostitution rings and the extortion of migrants, according to police.
Inside, prisoners enjoyed facilities where they could place bets, arrange loans at a makeshift bank and dance the night away at a nightclub dubbed “Tokio”.
Built in 1982, there was even a baseball park, where inmates could enjoy the sport as their children played in parks just next to it.
When food and everyday items were hard to come by in Venezuela at the height of the country’s economic crisis, one newspaper reported that locals would go to Tocorón to buy the essentials they could not get anywhere else.
Ronna Rísquez, author of a book on the gang, told the BBC the prison functioned like a “little city”. She said: “Their centre of operations has been closed down, but the leaders of this organisation and its cells abroad can continue functioning.”
It was ruled by the gang leader Hector Guerrero Flores, who fled the prison when Venezuelan authorities notified him about the raid.
Inside, security forces found an arsenal of weapons – automatic rifles, pistols and boxes of ammunition. Officers were also seen confiscating televisions and microwaves from inmates’ cells.
Police also discovered well-constructed tunnels, down which some drug bosses are believed to have fled as the raid unfolded.
One soldier was killed in the operation which had been planned for more than a year, according to Interior and Justice Minister Remigio Ceballos.
In a statement, the government of President Nicolás Maduro congratulated the security forces on “re-establishing order” at the prison and praised them for the “clean and quick actions”.
However, a later statement announced that a “second phase” of the operation had been launched, which the government said consisted in “capturing all and every one of the escaped criminals”.
But the fact that such a large operation at a jail full of members of Venezuela’s most feared criminal gang should have proceeded so peacefully has led to speculation that the authorities may have negotiated with the Tren de Aragua.
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