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Guns, Drugs, and Poodles: The Life and Death of a Venezuelan Prison Boss

Videos of inmates shooting automatic weapons into the air to bid farewell to a convicted drug trafficker known as El Conejo, or the Rabbit, have highlighted how little control the Venezuelan authorities have over what goes on in the country's prisons.
Photo via Facebook

In death, as he was in life, convicted Venezuelan drug trafficker Teófilo Rodríguez Cazorla was not a discreet man.

Better known by his nickname El Conejo, or The Rabbit, Rodríguez was shot dead inside his vehicle before dawn on Sunday outside a nightclub in Porlamar, the biggest city on the tourist island of Margarita. The car was riddled with about 70 bullets.

The following day El Conejo's body was ceremoniously taken to the island's San Antonio prison, where he was an inmate — in theory. As the "boss" of the jail, he appeared to come and go pretty much as he pleased.


When the coffin arrived at the prison dozens of prisoners took the the roof and bid their leader farewell with volleys of automatic gunfire. Outside the gates a contingent of the Bolivarian National Guard stood by impassively as the shots crackled.

Video via YouTube

El Conejo's burial took place on Tuesday with crowds accompanying the funeral procession to the cemetery. Main roads were shut, as well as some schools.

Videos of El Conejo's funeral rites circulating widely on social media have shone a spotlight on the phenomenon of the "pranes," or "bosses," who control what goes on within many of Venezuela's prisons, as well as on the government's apparent reluctance to do much about it.

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Shortly after taking office in 2011, Venezuela's minister of prisons, Iris Varela, met with several pranes in an effort to persuade them to reduce the levels of violence behind bars.

While the meetings included prisoners symbolically handing over some weapons, they were also seen as tacit recognition of the state's limited influence over what goes on in its jails. Minister Varela's encounter with El Conejo ended with a selfie.

Murio alias 'el Conejo' pran consentido de Iris Varela, luego de ser tiroteado en discoteca en Porlamar, — Pedro Paolucci (@paolucci40)January 24, 2016

Via Twitter

El Conejo was sent to the San Antonio prison on Margarita Island in 2003. As well as drug trafficking, he was also convicted of car theft and the illegal possession of firearms.


Once established as the pran, El Conejo was the undisputed master of what went on inside the prison, which included both organizing and controlling access to military-grade weapons and drugs inside the jail. He also reputedly ran much of the criminal activity on the island, particularly the supply of drugs to the local market, which includes fun-seeking tourists.

His organization became known as Tren del Pacífico, or Train of the Pacific.

"Tren del Pacífico says goodbye to the king of kings, the boss," one member of the group wrote on his Facebook page after El Conejo's murder. "People only die when they are forgotten and your people will never forget you."

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During his time as the boss of San Antonio, El Conejo was constantly guarded by armed inmates who reportedly sported small rabbit tattoos.

His cell boasted a private bathroom and a reception room, as well as a queen sized bed, a 42-inch plasma TV, and paintings on the walls including portraits of his daughter and several Catholic images. He also kept two poodles.

El Conejo had the Playboy logo — which he used as his own symbol, sometimes filled out a bit to reflect his ample size — painted on every wall of the prison. There are also several wall portraits of him alongside Venezuela's revered former leader President Hugo Chávez.

Photo via Facebook

The size of El Conejo's influence in the wider community was underlined in 2013 when a local yacht club was inaugurated inside the prison. The event included professional sound and lighting, air conditioning, and dancers. Even without special events, the prison boasts a swimming pool, a nightclub, and a restaurant.


The San Antonio prison is not the only Venezuelan jail to have such luxuries. Discos behind bars are particularly common. A photo gallery printed in local media in 2015 highlighted the cockfighting ring, pool, playground, and restaurant at the Tocorón prison, located in central Venezuela. That prison reportedly even has a bank.

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Official information on Venezuela's prisons, however, is very difficult to obtain.

According to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, an NGO, there are currently close to 50,000 prisoners in the country's jails, of which only about a third have actually been sentenced. The Observatory also highlights chronic overcrowding with facilities crammed with about double the number of inmates they were built to cope with. Other studies have concluded that the number of prisoners exceeds capacity by nine times.

The newly-inaugurated legislature, which is controlled by opposition political parties for the first time in 17 years, called a debate on the state of the country's prisons this week, but there has yet to be any indication that a major shift in prison policy is imminent.

Prisons minister Varela told Unión Radio on Wednesday that "everybody condemns" the sendoff the inmates gave El Conejo after his murder, and promised that the weapons on display would be confiscated.

"The inmates wanted me to authorize taking the coffin to the prison," she said. "I told them no."


Varela, however, insisted that the absence of riots inside the San Antonio prison meant it was "pacified." She also insisted that El Conejo had served his sentence and was a "free man" at the time of his death. This contradicted widespread reports that he had yet to complete an 18-year sentence.

Video via YouTube

Meanwhile, local reporters on the island told VICE News that El Conejo's death appeared to be the work of a rival gang seeking to move into criminal businesses on Margarita island. They added, however, that the situation inside the prison seemed to be calm because El Conejo's successor had already taken control.

Follow Victor Amaya on Twitter: @victoramaya