PORLAMAR, Venezuela — On the outside, the San Antonio prison on Margarita Island looks like any other Venezuelan penitentiary. Soldiers in green fatigues stand at its gates. Sharpshooters squint from watchtowers. Guards cast menacing glances at visitors before searching them at the entrance.
But once inside, the prison for more than 2,000Venezuelans and foreigners held largely for drug trafficking looks more like a Hugh Hefner inspired fleshpot than a stockade for toughened smugglers.
Bikini-clad female visitors frolic under the Caribbean sun in an outdoor pool. Marijuana smoke flavors the air. Reggaetón booms from a club filled with grinding couples. Paintings of the Playboy logo adorn the pool hall. Inmates and their guests jostle toplace bets at the prison’s raucous cockfighting arena.
“The Venezuelan prisoners here run the show, and that makes life inside a bit easier for us all,” said Fernando Acosta, 58, a Mexican pilot jailed since 2007. His cellmate, a Congolese businessman, had hired him to fly a Gulfstream jet that prosecutors accuse them of planning to use for smuggling two tons of cocaine to West Africa.
It isnot uncommon for armed inmates to exercise a certain degree of autonomy in Venezuela’s penitentiaries. Prisoners with BlackBerries and laptops have arranged drug deals, abductions and murders from their cells, the police say, a legacy of decades of overcrowding, corruption and insufficient guards.
But San Antonio prison, renowned on Margarita Island as a relatively tranquil place where evenvisitors can go for sinful weekend partying, is in a class of its own.
The island itself is a departure point for drug shipments into the Caribbean and the United States, and the traffickers arrested here often end up in this prison, effectively overseeing life behind its walls with a surreal mix of hedonism and force. Some inmates walk the prison grounds grasping assault rifles.
“I was in thearmy for 10 years, I’ve played with guns all my life,” said Paul Makin, 33, a Briton arrested here in Porlamar for cocaine smuggling in 2009. “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.”
Inmates say they owe their unusual privileges to a fellow prisoner, Teófilo Rodríguez, 40, a convicted drugtrafficker who controls the arsenal that awes Mr. Makin. Mr. Rodríguez is the inmates’ top leader — a “pran” as alpha prisoners are called.
Mr. Rodríguez also goes by the moniker “El Conejo” (The Rabbit), which explains the proliferation of the pran’s trademark throughout the prison: paintings of the Playboy logo. Inside, opportunities flourish for inmates to make money. Visitors from the island, apalm-fringed getaway destination, line up on weekends to place bets at the prison’s cockfighting arena, generating gambling revenue.
Other visitors, aware that guards search upon entering but not exiting, go inside to buy drugs. Prisoners and visitors alike make use of an alley between cells to smoke marijuana and crack cocaine.
Venezuela’s government recognizes the problems within itsprisons, where fighting between gangs controlled by prans like Mr. Rodríguez contributes to a high number of killings. Human rights researchers found that 476 prisoners — about one percent of the nation’s entire prison population of 44,520 — were killed last year alone.
Hoping to tackle the violence, overcrowding and other systemic issues, the government announced plans to create a new ministry ofprisons. President Hugo Chávez singled out San Antonio prison for special attention on his Sunday television program in December 2009, celebrating the construction of a new 54-unit women’s annex here.
But human rights groups say corruption and institutional disarray have stymied efforts to improve conditions in many prisons. The nation’s Institute for Penitentiary Studies has had about 1,200...