South America is looking for a Venezuelan gang leader who escaped from a luxury prison

Prison in Venezuela / Photo EPA-EFE/MIGUEL GUTIERREZ

Police across South America are searching for a Venezuelan gang leader who escaped from the luxury prison he controlled shortly before it was raided. When in On Wednesday, 11.000 soldiers and police entered the Tocoron prison in Venezuela, run by inmates, Hector Guerrero Flores was nowhere to be found.

Under the rule of Guerrero Flores, Tocoron became like a luxury resort. The prison boasted a small zoo, a night club and a swimming pool. The 39-year-old man from Aragua state in Venezuela has been in and out of Tocoron prison for more than a decade.

In 2012, the leader of the transnational criminal gang Tren de Aragua managed to escape from prison by bribing the guards. After his re-arrest in 2013, he was returned to the same prison, but his power within the prison – and over those charged with guarding him – seems to have only grown.

Not only did he turn Tocoron into the nerve center of the Tren de Aragua criminal enterprise, but under his rule, the prison was outfitted with all the trappings of a luxury hotel.

Police in Venezuela / Photo EPA/HUMBERTO MATHEUS

The families of the prisoners moved into the complex. Prisoners had access to a makeshift bank, betting shop, restaurant and baseball field, while their children could admire flamingos and ostriches in the animal enclosures.

Guerrero Flores was reportedly able to come and go as he pleased. Venezuelan author Rona Rísquez, who wrote a book about Tren de Aragua, recounted how the police encountered him once at a yacht party in 2016.

According to Rísquez, the convict calmly showed officers a safe conduct issued by Venezuela's prison service that allowed him to travel freely around the country.

Umberto Prado, director of the non-governmental Observatory of Venezuela on Prisons, told BBC that Guerrero Flores lived "like a king" in prison and probably returned to it because of the security it offered.

"He had a whole floor to himself, with all the luxury, double beds, plasma TVs, sound system. He even had his own bodyguards and no one could enter the floor without his permission," she says.

According to Prado and others familiar with prison conditions, Guerrero Flores had no rivals in prison and was therefore able to safely rule over his ever-expanding criminal network. Tren de Aragua under his leadership expanded to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile and turned from extorting migrants into sex trafficking, contract killing and kidnapping.

Such is the gang's reach that Chilean President Gabriel Boric has addressed it directly, saying "we will hunt them down, we will jail them and in cases where necessary, we will expel them".

Pressure from Latin American leaders is believed to have led to a massive security operation launched by Venezuelan authorities last week at Tocoron prison.

Officials said 11.000 soldiers and police had been deployed to wrest control of the prison from the inmates. The absence of Hector Guerrero Flores was first noticed during the raid, but Venezuelan authorities did not publicly announce his escape at the time.

VIDEO | Police in Venezuela have regained control of a prison run by criminal gangs

It wasn't until Saturday, three days after the security operation, that Venezuela's Interior Ministry offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of Guerrero Flores.

Despite the escape of the most powerful prisoner, President Nicolas Maduro said the raid was carried out "flawlessly".

Nicolás Maduro / Photo EPA-EFE/Miraflores Presidential Palace

He admitted that "some prisoners escaped due to the corruption of the officials, who warned the prisoners about the upcoming security operation".

The president said those responsible would be "severely punished." Meanwhile, police in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Venezuela are looking for Hector Guerrero Flores.

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