The riot began on February 16, when prisoners affiliated with the Rotela clan, the country’s most powerful criminal outfit, took over a wing known as “the jungle”, used for particularly dangerous inmates at the Tacumbu prison in the capital Asuncion.
They were said to be protesting against the planned removal of two of the clan’s leaders, bank robber Orlando Benitez and drug kingpin Armando Rotela, nicknamed the “king of crack.” Both were due to be moved to a specialist police facility in an apparent bid by the authorities to preempt a jailbreak.
Initially, riot police were able to quell the uprising. But after they withdrew, the prisoners took back “the jungle,” setting part of the building on fire and then settling scores with members of the First Capital Command (PCC), a sprawling Brazilian gang with a presence in Paraguay, particularly the landlocked country’s booming cannabis industry.
PCC members had beheaded 10 Rotela Clan members and torched their remains in a riot in another prison in the town of San Pedro, several hours northeast of Asuncion, in 2019.
In revenge, the Rotela Clan members this week also took hostage 18 heavily armed prison guards and then demanded that Justice Minister Cecilia Perez show up at the prison to negotiate with them.
When she did, they presented their demands, which included better conditions in the overcrowded jail and no reprisals for the riots. They eventually released the prison guards, although it is unclear what concessions, if any, were made by Perez.
A team of prosecutors are now investigating the riot. But their work has been complicated by the revelation that Tacumbu’s closed-circuit television cameras were not operational. It was unclear whether prosecutors have yet identified any suspects.
Paraguay’s prisons are notoriously underfunded, with prisoners typically having to fend for themselves, including cooking their own food and allocating bunks among themselves.
Built in the 1950s, Tacumbu was originally intended to hold 800 inmates but has become a human clearinghouse for some 4,000, sometimes overseen by as few as 20 guards. Hardened criminals serving lengthy sentences mix freely with small time drug dealers, known as “pasilleros,” who have yet to be tried.
Last year, cops took down a cocaine lab inside the jail. They also confiscated more than $12,000 in cash. In 2016, they raided the luxurious cell of one alleged gang leader, discovering, among other things, a modern office, equipped with a boardroom table, large flatscreen TV and fridge.
Some of the problems at Tacumbu stem from its overcrowding, which in turn is the result of what officials admit is the excessive and “indiscriminate” use of pretrial detention in Paraguay, a common problem across Latin America. Of the seven dead, only two were reported to have actually been convicted.