Bitcoin machines, rocket-launchers seized in Venezuela prison


Venezuelan authorities on Thursday showed off dozens of Bitcoin mining machines and heavy weapons such as rocket launchers and grenades seized in a prison recaptured from gang control.

More than 11,000 police and soldiers, backed up by tanks and armored vehicles, stormed the Tocoron prison in the country's north on Wednesday.

The facility had long served as the headquarters of the Tren de Aragua gang that operates in Venezuela and other Latin American countries

Interior and Justice Minister Remigio Ceballos told reporters four prison guards were arrested as suspected accomplices of gang members who had lived it up behind bars.

"There will be no impunity. We will go against all the criminals and accomplices," said Ceballos, hailing a "successful operation that allowed us to strike a blow against criminal groups."

After declaring it had taken control of the prison, the government began evacuating its 1,600 inmates to other locations.

The prison boasted gang-installed amenities such as a zoo, a pool, gambling rooms, a disco, a baseball field and a restaurant.

Some inmates had lived there with their wives or girlfriends, who were kicked out during the operation.

Ceballos said sniper rifles, explosives, rocket launchers, and grenades were seized and authorities showed journalists buckets of bullets, heaps of machine gun ammunition belts and machines used to mine for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

On Wednesday, the government said some inmates had managed to flee during the clampdown, without giving details.

Ceballos said the gang leaders had mistreated other prisoners and kept them in "a kind of slavery."

Tren de Aragua, Venezuela's most powerful home-grown gang, is involved in crime countrywide and has spread its tentacles to neighboring nations.

According to an investigation by Venezuelan journalist Ronna Risquez, it has some 5,000 members.

The gang emerged a decade ago, and is involved in kidnappings, robberies, drug trafficking, prostitution, extortion and illegal gold mining.

The InSight Crime think tank says the gang is also a major player in migrant smuggling.

Venezuela says it has regained control of a notorious jail, which had been under the control of the powerful Tren de Aragua criminal gang.

Some 11,000 security personnel were deployed to Tocorón prison, which had been run by inmates for years.

Prisoners were able to roam freely inside the penitentiary, which had hotel-like facilities including a pool, nightclub and a mini zoo.

The interior minister said that the jail would be completely cleared.

Tocorón not only held convicted criminals but also some of their partners and relatives, who moved into the penitentiary to be near their loved ones.

One woman, Gladys Hernández, told AFP news agency that she was waiting to hear where they were taking her husband.

"I was living in there, but they kicked us out," she said.

The jail doubled up as the headquarters of the Tren de Aragua, Venezuela's most powerful transnational gang.

From the jail, Tren de Aragua ruled a criminal enterprise spanning several Latin American countries and reaching as far as Chile.

Its members engage in human trafficking, run prostitution rings and extort migrants.

The gang fitted the prison out with all kinds of facilities, such as games rooms and a small zoo complete with flamingos and an ostrich.

Inmates could place bets on horse races, arrange loans at a makeshift bank and dance the night away at a nightclub dubbed "Tokio".

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.

AFP journal said that they saw security guards carrying motorcycles, televisions and microwaves from the jail as its inmates were moved.

Ronna Rísquez, author of the book Tren de Aragua: The gang that revolutionised organised crime in Latin America told BBC Mundo's Valentina Oropeza that Tocorón functioned "like a little city".

The author also warned that the clearing of the prison did not automatically constitute the end of the gang.

"Their centre of operations has been closed down, but the leaders of this organisation and its cells abroad can continue functioning," she said.

Some local media have reported that the leader of the Tren de Aragua gang, Héctor Guerrero Flores, may be among those who absconded, but the government has not named any of the escapees.

Guerrero Flores was serving a 17-year sentence inside the prison for murder and drug trafficking.

However, he was so powerful that he reportedly used to come and go freely from the prison before becoming a full-time inmate, according to Carlos Nieto, a co-ordinator with prison rights group A Window to Freedom.

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