The San Antonio prison on Venezuela’s Margarita Island is not your typical penal institution. Whilst in other penitentiaries the inmates are forced to obey strict regulations harshly imposed by armed guards, in this atypical slammer, it’s the prisoners who make the rules. From cooking their own food to watching TV, surfing the web on their laptops and managing illegal businesses on their cellphones, the San Antonio inmates are free to go about their day as they please. The only thing they can’t do is leave. Any attempt to escape can result in instant death courtesy of the sharpshooters up in the prison’s watchtowers. But thankfully, most of the prisoners are so happy here that a potential escape is the last thing on their minds.
At San Antonio, prisoners enjoy many privileges, have jobs and make real money. Some are barbers, some sell drugs while others manage the local cock fight club which generates a decent gambling revenue. There is even a guy who photoshops pictures of inmates leaning against a Hummer, using his own digital camera and laptop. Other lazy folk lie around in their air conditioned cells watching TV in the company of their wives or girlfriends who are free to come and go as they please. To the men’s satisfaction, a 54-unit women’s annex was built in 2009 which naturally caused the number of romantic liaisons between inmates to increase. The inmates’ children can also use the prison as a playground and spend the day swimming in one of the prison’s four pools. On weekends, the prison is even open for any visitors who want to have a good time of excess and depravity in its Reggaetón clubs. This really is a prison unlike any other.
The prisoners at San Antonio owe all their privileges to one Teófilo Rodrigues, also known as “El Conejo” (The Rabbit) because of his reported addiction to carrots. Rodrigues, a convicted drug trafficker, is the prison’s “pran” – the inmates’ top leader. His trademark, the Playboy logo, appears on numerous prison walls as well as tattooed on some inmates’ bodies as a sign of allegiance and loyalty to him. He has established himself as the true leader of this place by improving living conditions and making San Antonio weirdly safer than other prisons.
Along with his bodyguards, El Conejo also imposes some rules of conduct and those who disobey are allegedly severely punished. One prison wall painting depicts Rodriguez as the conductor of a train accompanied by his subordinates holding weapons pointed at a snitch hung from a noose. Apart from punishing snitches, this illustration portrays the reality that weapons are a common thing inside the prison gates. The majority of the 2,000 incarcerated Venezuelans are afraid to speak of this, but among them are numerous chatty foreigners. One is British “tourist” Paul Makin, who was arrested for cocaine smuggling in 2009. He’s amazed by the variety of guns present inside the prison gates. “I was in the army for 10 years, I’ve played with guns all my life”, he explains. “I’ve seen some guns in here that I’ve never seen before. AK-47s, AR-15s, M-16s, Magnums, Colts, Uzis, Ingrams. You name them, it’s in here.”