A lavish baseball stadium has been discovered in a prison in Venezuela, apparently built by gang members on the inside.
The baseball diamond, with its groomed grass and lighting system, is a jarring discovery for a country that’s been devastated by a decade-long economic crisis that has seen hyperinflation make its currency practically worthless. It is also a nod to the growing economic power and autonomy of criminal groups in Venezuela’s penitentiary system.
“The princes' house. The stadium, papa. A true nighttime stadium,” a voice is heard saying over a shaky video showing off the recently finished baseball field. But the video sent shockwaves through Venezuela due to its location in the middle of an infamous prison and the huge block letters along its wall with the name of one of the country's biggest prison gangs—the Tren de Aragua.
The prison is located in Aragua state from where the gang takes its name, and is reportedly the base of Tren de Aragua. One of the gang’s leaders, Hector Guerrero, alias El Niño, or The Kid, had previously been incarcerated in the same prison, but escaped in 2012. He was recaptured in 2013.
It’s been reported that the prison holds around 7000 inmates, nearly ten times its original capacity of 750. But given the opacity of Venezuela's prison system, VICE World News was unable to verify that figure.
While there has been no official statement about the baseball diamond, local media quoted anonymous prison officials explaining how it had “been used before for softball and it was remodeled by the criminal group.” The diamond is clearly visible on Google Maps inside the prison and the gang didn't hide their involvement, painting “Tren de Aguara” on the wall. Local news outlets noted how the prison diamond actually seemed higher quality than some of those in Venezuela's top professional baseball league.
Lawlessness and criminal governance inside Latin American prison isn't new. A prison on an island in Venezuela was reportedly run like a mini-city. Some cells were equipped with air-conditioning and satellite dishes until its closure in 2016. It later reopened with stricter controls in 2018, but 65 prisoners escaped in a mass breakout the following year.
The prison with the baseball diamond reportedly also contains a pool and a discotheque. But this sort of lack of authority in prisons and self-governance has also had tragic results.
In 2020, a riot in a Venezuela prison left 47 inmates dead and another 69 injured. In February, at least 79 people died when a gang war caused several coordinated riots in prisons across Ecuador. Gang battles in a Brazil prison led to 56 deaths in 2019.
Outside of the prison walls behind which it is based, the Tren de Aguara gang has been expanding in recent years. The gang has been found in countries like Peru, while also maintaining a foothold in the profitable border region between Venezuela and Colombia, according to local media reports.
Colombian defense minister Diego Molano announced on April 7 that the police and military had sent additional reinforcements to the border region after a series of gun battles between members of the Tren de Aguara and the ELN, a rebel group that is also allegedly involved in drug trafficking.
But while the gang continues efforts on the outside to control the drug market, in the prison they may have found a healthier way to spend their time. The voice speaking over the video noted how the games played there would be good for “betting.”
Baseball is generally considered the country's most popular sport and numerous Venezuelans have played in Major League Baseball. However, the accompanying fame and celebrity has not always been a good thing. In 2011, a catcher for the Washington Nationals at the time named Wilson Ramos was kidnapped after returning to his home country during the MLB offseason to play in Venezuela's winter league for a team in Aragua. Luckily, Venezuelan authorities already had the kidnappers under investigation and were able to free Ramos the next day.
The kidnappers were reportedly imprisoned, although it’s unclear whether they are in the Aragua prison and will have access to the baseball diamond.