The Final Days of Franklin Masacre [Repeat] | Translation
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[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we go back to our archives, to a story we first published in 2017. It’s about one of Venezuela’s largest prisons, its dynamics and one of its biggest crises.
Here is the episode.
This story starts with a song:
(SOUNDBITE SONG “FREE CONVICTS”)
This is a group of Venezuelan rappers. Here at Radio Ambulante we heard about them from Mariana Zúñiga, a journalist who is also from Venezuela who had been following them.
How did you learn about them?
[Mariana Zúñiga, producer]: Well, Daniel, you know, the first time I heard about them it was from a post I saw on Facebook, I think it was in August of last year. A friend posted something about a recording studio that was inside a prison.
(SOUNDBITE SONG “FREE CONVICTS”)
[Mariana]: And I said: “Finally someone is doing something in the prisons so that people can spend their time doing something… Something different. And not just thinking about how to survive, or about drugs, or about…about getting out and continuing in that same world that got them inside those walls in the first place”.
[Daniel]: And you got to meet them.
[Mariana]: Yes, there are 15 rappers in total. I went to the jail and I met a few of them. One of them is named Julio, I won’t say his last name because, well, he asked me not to include it. Julio told me the group started in 2012.
[Julio]: And it was a group of buddies who went around freestyling.
(SOUNDBITE FREESTYLE RAP)
[Mariana]: They hung out in the prison yard improvising lyrics and freestyling and that was how Julio became friends with the other rappers.
[Julio]: I met the brothers from Free Convict.
[Daniel]: What’s it called?
[Julio]: Free Convict.
[Mariana]: Free Convict.
[Daniel]: Free Convict.
[Mariana]: Exactly, Free Prisoner.
[Daniel]: To set up a studio we’re talking about equipment, microphones, recorders…How did they manage to get all that in jail?
[Mariana]: Well, the same way you get everything: under the table. They started recording in a way that was very precarious: that’s what Julio told me.
[Julio]: We were recording on a Blackberry, a voice memo…
[Mariana]: And they managed to get, little by little, a microphone here, some speakers there…
[Julio]: We spoke with the people in charge. Telling them that there would be no problems…
[Mariana]: And they managed to get a room to use and create their own recording studio.
[Julio]: They gave us, thank God, a studio in San Juan.
[Mariana]: Julio is referring to the Venezuelan General Penitentiary, known as the PGV or as San Juan. It’s about three hours from Caracas and it closed in October, 2016.
[Daniel]: And that is the story we are going to tell. Today we are exploring a very dark chapter in the history of a country facing an enormous crisis. How and why they closed one of the biggest and best known jails in Venezuela. Some called it the “Mother Prison.” Maybe this was a story that was lost among all of the other news about hunger and oppression that come out of Venezuela these days, but in many ways this story helps us to understand a country that is getting dangerously close to a breaking point.
[Mariana]: The San Juan jail was built in 1947, originally for 500 inmates. But by 2016 an NGO that studies Venezuelan prisons estimated that there were around 10 thousand.
[Daniel]: And inside…
[Mariana]: There are all kind of people. There are people who haven’t been convicted, there are people who have and they aren’t separated. In other words, there could be a person who stole—let’s say, just as an example—an apple and a person who committed murder. All in the same place.
Julio, for instance, told me that he arrived at San Juan in March of 2014.
[Julio]: For homicide… What can I say…
[Mariana]: Julio spent all his time at San Juan with another guy in Free Convicts, a rapper called Benjamín. He was in jail because he was accused of committing robbery, but Benjamín claims he didn’t do it.
[Benjamín]: Because, like I’m telling you, they incriminated me in the sense that…there was never any proof.
[Mariana]: And he and Julio ended up in the same jail without any distinction between the crimes they committed. Both came from the same environment of poverty and bad neighborhoods in Venezuela. Elio, another rapper I met in the jail, described to me the kind of home he grew up in.
[Elio]: Well, my childhood was rough. Ever since I was a boy, with my mom, because my dad was killed when I was a boy…
[Mariana]: Elio grew up with a mother who acted as a mother and a father because his father had been killed when he was, I believe, around 5 years old.
[Elio]: And that was how…I ended up down the path I’m on now.
[Daniel]: And when they arrived at San Juan, they realized there was a kind of order put in place by the prisoners themselves.
[Mariana]: In the Venezuelan prison subculture there’s a society. There’s the political elite at the top —at the head— there’s the leader, who’s the pran
[Daniel]: The pran. The pran is the boss, the guy in charge, the oli…the authoritarian leader in the jail.
[Mariana]: Who is a convict.
[Mariana]: The pran in Venezeula is someone who is in charge of the business going on in the prison, and he is also in charge of the lives of the rest of the inmates.
When I asked the guys where this figure came from, Julio told me:
[Julio]: The prans started out as something illegal. It was like a union inside the jail.
[Daniel]: In other words, there’s a negotiation between the state and the pran…to put the pran in charge? Or is he totally free from the authorities?
[Mariana]: In Venezuela there was so much negligence and it lost so much power that…control just went to them. It went into their hands.
[Daniel]: But there was some kind of breaking point and when was that?
[Mariana]: It starts…you start to see it in Venezuela around the 90s.
[Daniel]: And from that moment on the jails in Venezuela…
[Mariana]: Are packed, abandoned, chaotic, anarchic…
[Daniel]: And inside the jails…
[Mariana]: There are thousands of men, there are thousands of weapons they have inside and it’s very difficult to control them.
[Daniel]: The situation got to a point where the government agency that oversees the prisons negotiates with the prans. It’s like they subcontracted out the management of the prisons.
[Mariana]: On social media you can see pictures of the minister with figures like the prans of different prisons. So you can see that there is a…collegial relationship.
[Daniel]: Mariana explained that in order to maintain control, the prans levy a kind of tax on the inmates, a tax they call “la causa”.
[Mariana]: The pran charges this tax in order to provide them with the lifestyle they have. In other words, to buy food and maintain the infrastructure of the prisons: they paint it and take out the trash. Julio explains it to me like this:
[Juan]: Food, parties, all that… Because, as you can see, these are institutions where no one gives you anything and everything comes at a price. And so it was like a collection among all the inmates to…for each one…to cover costs. To cover costs. That’s la causa.
[Daniel]: But how do you pay the tax? I mean, where does it come from? How do you make money?
[Mariana]: Well, paying the tax is…for them it’s a nightmare. It’s a headache to think, “man, how am I going to pay this tax every week?” So they depend on their relatives heavily, they depend on visitors to be able to pay this tax which is more expensive in some prisons than others.
Elio, for example, explained to me that it’s always been hard for him to pay la causa.
[Elio]: And well, I got by because I had my little revolution around here…
[Mariana]: Your what?
[Elio]: My revolution. Revolution is like my little job, for me…it’s selling cookies and stuff like that. That’s all. Others sell cigarettes and stuff to pay it.
[Mariana]: “So I go around there selling cigarettes in the morning so that people give me money and with that money I can pay my “cause” or my tax.”
[Daniel]: Sure, they’re all small entrepreneurs. You have to be, don’t you.
[Mariana]: Of course, if you don’t pay on time you’re immediately back in the hole: you lose status or get in trouble.
[Daniel]: Sorry, when you say “get in trouble”… That’s a kind of vague way of saying that there will violence?
[Mariana]: It can come to that, but what usually happens in those cases is that those inmates who can’t pay are forced to do the jobs that no one wants to do. Things like cleaning the bathrooms or taking out the trash, removing debris… That kind of thing.
[Daniel]: What kind of rules does the pran put in place to maintain order? Or in other words: Why don’t they all kill each other every day?
[Mariana]: Yes, it’s true that inside the prison you can see normal convicts who might have a knife or something of the sort. But the ordinary inmate, like the people in our story, don’t have weapons. And as long as they have a normal life —they have food and certain other things that the government doesn’t provide them— they don’t mind following the rules set by someone that carries what they call ‘powder’, in other words, firearms.
And well, as Benjamín told me, he, Julio and Elio learned these rules and they had a rather peaceful life inside San Juan.
[Benjamín]: It was like it was free, like it was a community. And we…we understood each other in our way. Without ever going off the rails, as we say.
[Daniel]: Going off the rails?
[Mariana]: There are certain rules that are sacred. For example, you shouldn’t disrupt people’s visits. If someone’s sister or mother comes to visit, well, that’s sacred.
[Daniel]: The rules are designed to keep the peace in an overpopulated prison.
[Juan]: San Juan prison was like all of the penitentiaries in Venezuela. Like all of the penitentiaries in Venezuela: open, if you had your group, but there was more to it, it was a little more human.
[Daniel]: I want to understand, I don’t want to paint and idealized or utopian picture of what it was, but it seems to me, from what you’re telling me, that when Julio Benjamín and Elio were in San Juan it was a place where the pran was somewhat reasonable, and if you followed the rules and behaved yourself and you spoke clearly, you could accomplish things, right?
[Mariana]: Yes. If you behaved and stayed in your lane, in the way you act, well, you didn’t get in trouble and had a relatively normal life.
[Juan]: Until this person came who disrupted everything. All the rules changed, the whole system.
[Mariana]: A man named Franklin Hernández Quesada arrived. He arrived in 2015 and he had already been an inmate at San Juan, in the early 2000s. And he came back to visit his friends, who happened to be the leaders of the prison at the time. Imagine, his visit went on so long it stopped being a visit. The guy practically brought his luggage and lived inside the prison. This is what Julio tells us:
[Julio]: He came in October. A normal visit. He showed up, spent time with his friend, walked around the prison. Some of us didn’t know who he was, we heard people say: “Look, that guy’s here”.
[Mariana]: But you see, Daniel, you first have to understand that this is completely normal in prisons like San Juan. An inmate visit can last for several days, weeks, some people even move in. So of course, there was nothing wrong with someone like Franklin, who already had a trajectory, well, staying.
[Juan]: He’s here. That guy is old school.
Mariana: It turns out that the police were looking for Franklin and he said: “Why don’t I go to stay with my friends, where I was already held, to San Juan, the General Penitentiary, and I’ll stay there a while and go, you know, I’ll ‘chill out’, rest and go be with them.”
[Daniel]: Wow! Ok, you have to make this very clear because it’s absolutely nuts. In other words, you can hide from the police in prison. That’s what you just said.
[Mariana]: More or less.
[Daniel]: So the police can’t go in.
[Mariana]: No they can’t. The police are not…allowed to enter.
And well, Franklin came to visit but he didn’t go unnoticed. Julio remembers him…
[Juan]: Tall, tan, dark hair. Square shouldered. The way he spoke: he was a man that spoke to you and automatically…commanded…respect, fear.
[Mariana]: And something very strange happened. Benjamín told me that as soon as he arrived, the pran at the time gave him a gun.
[Benjamín]: “Fine, you were here with us before, you get your gun and everything, we’re giving you a gun, fine, take it, it’s yours.”
[Mariana]: This is something that not just anyone has, let alone a visitor. But Franklin didn’t act like a normal visitor.
[Benjamín]: But, as a visitor, I can’t make decisions. No, never. And he did. That was the strangest thing to me.
[Mariana]: Little by little he started giving orders as if he was one of the bosses.
[Daniel]: And the pran wasn’t opposed to Franklin giving orders?
[Mariana]: No, well, because in reality there was the pran —who was called el Ratón, the Rat— who had been a friend of Franklin’s for a long time. They were like brothers. And Julio explained to me that Ratón, well, he had so much respect for Franklin that…
[Julio]: He gave him total control of the prison. Him, a visitor. Which was really not right. But well, everyone rules in their own way, as they say. And they made that decision and well, their friend was in charge of the prison.
[Mariana]: What was happening was that Ratón, the pran at the time, had been Franklin’s protegé. And now that he was back at the penitentiary, Ratón owed him favors.
[Daniel]: What happens to Ratón? Is he still there at his right hand?
[Mariana]: Like a right hand man, vice-president, a…a minister. Call him…call him whatever you like, but he remained close to Franklin.
[Daniel]: When we return: San Juan has a new man in charge and Franklin Hernández turns to Franklin Massacre.
It’s 2016 and the oldest prison in Venezuela has a new pran.
So, how does life change in the prison when Franklin becomes the pran?
[Mariana]: From the beginning it looked like —or this is what the guys tell me—, it looked like he was going to put a different routine in place. He came with his old-school ideas. He was a guy from the old guard.
[Juan]: Old school. Old school of the organized type, everything needs to follow a straight line.
[Mariana]: Julio explained the change that came with Franklin like this:
[Juan]: There’s no great sins or small sins, they’re all sins. And the guy, well, he had no mercy.
[Mariana]: And well, the ordinary inmates didn’t like that attitude. Benjamín told me that Franklin, as a leader…
[Benjamín]: He didn’t get it. He didn’t get it. He just didn’t get it because by that time things had already changed a lot. Times have changed for the better. And now everything is more…more relaxed.
[Daniel]: Sorry, more relaxed? In other words, things in the prison had improved?
[Mariana]: What happens is that, well, Franklin had been in San Juan for the first time 10 years earlier. And well, according to Julio…
[Juan]: And he came from those days when you didn’t have to ask anyone permission to kill another inmate or fight with someone. And that was upsetting the system.
[Mariana]: In other words: “I don’t understand why this guy is coming here with all these rules that are already out of style. Now there’s…no one is from the old guard.”
[Daniel]: And the first thing he did was…
[Mariana]: Raise the rates for la causa.
This is Elio…
[Elio]: He charged a lot, he charged a lot and we didn’t see any of it… We didn’t see anything at all.
[Mariana]: You had no idea what he spent the money on.
[Elio]: No, none at all. We had no idea.
[Mariana]: La causa went from, according to the guys, from 2,000 bolivars to 5,000.
[Daniel]: From around $2 to $5 dollars, according to the black market exchange rate at that time.
[Mariana]: But first, with Venezuela’s inflation, it was really hard to pay.
[Benjamín]: Everything was always going up, going up, going up. And while everything goes up we have to pay more.
[Mariana]: And it’s hard for someone from a poor family to pay that…every week.
[Elio]: Frustration. Rage. When he asked for collaboration with money and you couldn’t see what he was doing with it. That makes a person angry. But what can you say? Nothing.
[Daniel]: And of course, those who couldn’t pay by selling things…all they could do was steal.
[Mariana]: If you steal from someone in prison, before they… They “leaded” you. They shot you in the hand.
[Juan]: But it was a shot from a 9 mm.
[Mariana]: With a gun that’s not so…that won’t leave you deformed for life.
[Juan]: But he took to another level.
[Mariana]: He had some…some punishments that were rather…medieval.
[Elio]: Shit, they called him the “Monster of the Mandarria.”
[Daniel]: What’s a man…man…manda…
[Mariana]: A mandarria…
[Elio]: Of the mandarria…
[Mariana]: An instrument like a giant hammer.
[Daniel]: No way!
[Elio]: A huge mandarria, and he broke the guys’ hands with it, like this with the mandarria.
[Juan]: And everyone ended up mutilated, missing two fingers, three fingers…
[Daniel]: We’re talking about a psychopath.
[Mariana]: Yes, well I think you could say that he was not normal.
[Juan]: Since he came, he came doing the worst. Killing people and more people.
[Daniel]: And was there unrest? The other inmates didn’t rebel?
[Mariana]: Of course, but they didn’t dare say anything because they were the ones who had a monopoly on violence: the ones who carried the powder, who had the guns. So of course, no one dared complain.
[Daniel]: But in August of last year, Franklin faced his first obstacle.
[Mariana]: The Ministry of Prison Affairs says that it has tried to, well, solve the problem of prison mafias trying to create new kinds of prisons. There are open regimen prisons and there are military regimen prisons.
It’s worth noting that open regimen prisons refers to the prisons that are managed by the inmates themselves.
[Daniel]: Open regimen means a prison that we don’t control. But we’ll put this figure and this phrase on it so it’s fine but it really means that there is no control.
[Mariana]: Exactly. It sounds much better to say “open regimen” than to say: “We don’t control the people who are inside this place.”
And so you have these open regiment prisons, and on the other hand you have these military regimen prisons, which have been a way for the government to recover what they lost. And these military regimen prisons are obviously, well they’re more strict.
[Daniel]: In other words, they become what they would be in a normal country like the US or in Europe.
[Mariana]: Yes, yes. This is more like an American prison, we’ll say. But at the same time there continues to be a thing, a Venezuelan invention, to impose…to impose this order they’re looking for.
And Benjamín, Elio and Julio told me that already in San Juan —which was an open regimen prison— it was like…like the ministry had its eye on it, and little by little it was emptying out the prison and taking prisoners and transferring them to other prisons in the country.
[Juan]: And that was what blew up everything. They were clearing out the prison. And he didn’t like that.
[Daniel]: What impact did removing an inmate have on Franklin?
[Mariana]: Put simply, taking away an inmate meant they’re taking money out of his pocket. Franklin arrives when there are 10 thousand inmates and all of a sudden he sees that the prison is clearing out. That meant less money.
And well, he decides to do something that he used to do when he was in jail, resorting to his old-school handbook. So he kidnapped the prison’s administrative personnel.
[Juan]: And they decide to take… to take the administrators hostage…for a week.
[Mariana]: These personnel are the people in charge of, well, taking prisoners to court, keeping the records of each inmate…
[Daniel]: So they’re judicial bureaucrats…
[Mariana]: So in August he kidnapped more than 20 people.
[Juan]: Asking for a massive transfer in return to fill the prison again. To guarantee, as they say, more life in the prison.
[Mariana]: And in exchange, Franklin asked the ministry for 3,000 prisoners from other areas.
[Daniel]: And he was threatening to kill them?
[Mariana]: Yes, of course. In fact, there’s a video, which is like a proof of identity video, I think it’s called, a proof of life, in order to…He recorded it himself…Franklin himself to prove that these, these people were…alive.
[Officer]: Good evening, we are officials who find ourselves inside the Venezuelan General Prison, in a hostage situation that began on Monday.
[Mariana]: Well, in this video we see the workers, who are all in uniforms. There are looking very seriously at the camera. The one who speaks for the rest is a woman who identifies herself as a lawyer. The rest just…they just stand around her and remain silent. The video was taken 5 days after they had been captured and at that time the military had surrounded the prison and were firing shots aimed at the inside of the prison.
[Officer]: Yes, we are in the line of fire because the national guard started to shoot in mass inside the prison, where we are. We have had to go out in defense of our lives because what we want is to maintain our right to life.
[Mariana]: In the end, you hear a voice behind the camera:
[Franklin]: What’s going on? No one is coming…
[Mariana]: That’s Franklin…
[Franklin]: I at least want to talk to someone, right? directly, face to face, to say if we are going to put an end to this agony, or if we’re going to continue with it.
[Mariana]: And well, what happens? A week later they came in buses and…more than 2,000 prisoners arrived at the prison.
[Daniel]: Oh, Franklin won!
[Mariana]: Franklin won.
[Juan]: So he showed the world that we’re in charge inside the prison, not the government, not the military, not the guard, not the ministry, nobody.
[Daniel]: That is so astonishing to me. Seriously. It’s like a neighborhood gang managing to negotiate like that with the ministry and winning. But I don’t know if that’s news in Venezuela.
[Mariana]: I would love to tell you, “you know what, Daniel. Yes it was. It was on the cover of all the newspapers.” But it wasn’t’. It wasn’t because in this country there’s hunger, and people who don’t have medicine, and people die from that every day: because they can’t get their chemotherapy. So this kind of thing, well…it’s not something that makes a big splash.
[Daniel]: Franklin’s idea was to turn the prison back into the same “open prison” it had always been. He had gotten the prisoners he was looking for, now it was only a matter of charging la causa and that was it.
[Mariana]: And in order to show the world that San Juan was going back to being the prison it had always been, Franklin decided to throw a big party. And well, it was on September 14th last year, which was his birthday. It was the social event of the year at San Juan.
And when the day of the party arrived, Julio tells me that a ton of visitors came to the prisons. Who were visiting the prisoners but who were also Franklin’s close friends.
[Juan]: Some friends came to visit him. As they arrived they got guns, they “rescued” bombs.
[Mariana]: Rescue: in other words, Franklin handed out weapons to some of his guests. As if they were toys: “Oh look what I got. Look at this gun, look at this. Look at this…grenade.”
[Juan]: Many say that they went to greet him and one of his friends dropped the grenade. The bomb fell…
[Mariana]: And this grenade exploded.
[Juan]: A M26. A bomb that can turn a flip a tank.
[Mariana]: When the visitors were arriving. When there were women and children…
[Juan]: The bomb explodes on Saturday at noon…
[Mariana]: After the explosion, a local media outlet, the Tubazo Digital, captured the scene in the suburbs at the nearest hospital to the prison.
[Reporter]: Where a conflict situation has broken out inside the Venezuelan General Prison. As you can see in our images of the situation, I repeat, this is confirmed: so far we are reporting 2 deaths, 19 wounded and some injured visitors who were found…
[Mariana]: And countless people died. The truth is no one knows how many people died.
[Daniel]: Why don’t we know?
[Mariana]: Because there was no official count. Some bodies left the prison, like —“OK, take away these bodies”—and other bodies didn’t and were buried inside the prison.
[Juan]: It was total chaos. They took away the…the wounded. They grabbed the dead and put them to the side.
[Mariana]: People are dying and Franklin tells them, “OK, OK, go to you rooms,” while they got rid of the evidence, cleaned the area and buried the bodies.
[Juan]: And that is the last word. If they say “everyone to your rooms,” it’s everyone to their rooms.
[Mariana]: This is Julio.
[Julio]: And you have to look after yourself, your own life. But they stayed there doing their thing: burying the bodies they were going to bury, taking away the people they were going to take away, injured people, you know…
[Mariana]: The strange thing was that about 2 hours later, they ordered them to come back out. Elio told me that Franklin’s allies went into the normal inmates rooms and took them outside.
[Elio]: And then they shined a light there on the…on the shed.
[Mariana]: The scene they found in the prison yard was…surreal.
[Elio]: To see the salsa singer, who he brought. But that was show to hide the deaths.
[Mariana]: And then he made everyone dance.
[Juan]: And well, the music starts and the party continues. And that didn’t sit right with anyone, you know?
[Mariana]: You could still smell blood. They had to dance in the middle of the prison because it was his birthday.
[Elio]: It was horrible. Everyone was traumatized. That day. No one could sleep because of it.
[Mariana]: A week later, the army arrived. Hundreds of soldiers surrounded the prison. Their orders were clear: nothing and no one could go in or out of San Juan.
[Daniel]: The grenade made clear what everyone knew: Franklin was a dangerous despot and that the State could not allow him to stay in power.
[Mariana]: Julio told me that after the explosion…
[Juan]: There were people who did practically live inside the prison, who stayed with us.
[Mariana]: And Franklin used them as a bargaining chip.
[Juan]: When he realizes that the prison is surrounded, he doesn’t let any more people go, because the visitors were the only thing keeping them safe. It’s like they were stopping the government from going in and killing everyone. Or from war breaking out.
[Daniel]: They were using the visitors like a shield so that the government wouldn’t take the prison.
[Mariana]: In fact there are videos on the prison’s YouTube channel…
[Daniel]: Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry: San Juan had its own YouTube channel? [Laughter]
[Mariana]: [Laughing] Yes.
[Daniel]: Sorry, but I’m looking this up right now. What’s it’s called Prison…?
[Mariana]: No, on Youtube there’s a channel that comes up if you search PGV…
[Daniel]: Here it is, General Prison, is that it?
[Daniel]: Ok, I’m already watching videos.
[Mariana]: I mean, for me it’s crazy for a prison to have a Youtube channel because this guy likes being a star.
[Daniel]: Yes, yes, yes…
[Mariana]: But well, yes, in those videos you’re watching, somewhere in there, there are some videos that show some mothers and children who were trapped inside the prison after the grenade. And in this one that was recorded September 30th, a few weeks after the army surrounded the prison, you can see a woman surrounded by 10 very small skinny children. And the woman is speaking directly to the camera and she makes an appeal:
[Woman]: To explain to the country and the president that there are mothers here. We are very worried about the situation that is taking place. So we are asking you to let food, water, and medicine come through… All of the things we need to be able to survive.
[Mariana]: Franklin was doing exactly what he didn’t when he kidnapped the prison administration and held them hostage. He was recording videos to force the government to leave them alone, to get rid of the army and bring food.
[Franklin]: They aren’t even thinking about the children.
[Mariana]: In this other video we see around 100 women and children. And the voice you hear in the background is Franklin’s.
[Franklin]: Gentlemen, I want you to be human beings as well. Let’s think about the children. At no point has this servant, Franklin, said that he doesn’t want a dialogue. I have always wanted to talk!
[Mariana]: At the time he recorded this video, the army had already been surrounding the prison for 5 days. And people were already starting to feel hungry and Franklin ended his message directly accusing the government.
[Franklin]: And they want to massacre us! And if the visitors are out there. And if they are here with us. It’s of their own free will. Because they want to help us.
[Daniel]: Who’s applauding? The visitors?
[Mariana]: Yes, the visitors.
[Visitors]: We want bread! We want bread! We want bread!
[Daniel]: And what are they saying.
[Mariana]: They’re shouting: “We want bread!”
A few weeks after the army surrounded the prison, they ran out of food. And people fed themselves how they could.
[Juan]: Some ate cats and dogs. The dogs ran out. The cats ran out. The bushes ran out. Everything ran out and then you live on drugs….
[Mariana]: They were as drugged up as they could be in order to bear the hunger.
[Daniel]: Where did the drugs come from?
[Mariana]: The same way they got the guns, I mean, the same way the food came, the same way anything came to the prison. What happens is that, well, they still had the drugs and they didn’t have food.
[Juan]: There came a point when we couldn’t walk much, we couldn’t run, you couldn’t bathe. You couldn’t do a lot of things because your body was debilitated. The drugs kept you active.
[Mariana]: Perico, that’s what they call cocaine here in Venezuela.
[Juan]: So we were already seeing people who didn’t smoke smoking. People who never held a gun the whole time were walking around with a rifle and two hand guns. And it was already like, this is crazy, it’s like the devil is ruling this place.
[Mariana]: Franklin continued making videos to send them to the Ministry of Prisons. In one of the videos, he claims that there are prisoners who have tuberculosis and need their medicine. In the video you see very thin men who are obviously dying of hunger.
[Franklin]: This is the level of need we’re experiencing now, you see. This is real need, the truth, this is the true story of the Venezuelan General Prison.
[Mariana]: The voice you’re hearing from behind, like always, is Franklin’s.
[Daniel]: So, he doesn’t appear on screen…
[Mariana]: No, no. He insists that the sick people in the prison need their medicine for tuberculosis and then he changes the subject abruptly.
[Franklin]: Even our president, Nicolás Maduro, they are trying to destroy him too. Because he has his rival, you understand, which is practically the opposition, you see?
[Daniel]: It seems as if he’s comparing himself to Maduro.
[Mariana]: Yes, it seems that way…but what he’s really doing is accusing the government directly.
[Franklin]: Face this issue, do you understand? Because this is what is happening here, hmm? You don’t want to distance yourself from Venezuela’s problems and blame them on me.
[Mariana]: And he ends the video sending one last message to the ministry of prisons:
[Franklin]: Remember that this is the Venezuelan General Penitentiary, the mother prison of Venezuela, do you understand? Here’s where we should have the best treatment…
[Daniel]: And did it work? Did he get the ministry to help him a second time?
[Mariana]: No, this time it didn’t. The army sieged them and kept them there for 35 days…
[Daniel]: And every day…
[Mariana]: There was a fire fight between the two groups.
[Juan]: Shots all the time: bam, bam, bam.
[Mariana]: Bullets going in, bullets coming out.
Julio, Elio and Benjamín protected themselves as best they could.
[Daniel]: They were stuck.
[Juan]: And all of a sudden, we wake up to a megaphone outside of the prison, all along the line of fire saying that there are 3,000 greens.
[Mariana]: Greens. Or soldiers.
[Juan]: No matter how, they were going to take the prison.
[Mariana]: The ones who couldn’t take it anymore said: “Well, I’d rather be captured by the National Guard on the outside, I’m going to jump the fence.”
[Juan]: So people started to look at this hole in the wall, and behind that wall was the fence, and there we jumped over and well, the rest was up to God.
[Daniel]: It’s a really ironic image isn’t it? People in prison jumping the fence but not to escape, but rather to turn themselves in.
[Mariana]: Yes, what Julio told me is then people started jumping the fence, the problem changed.
[Juan]: The problem wasn’t the Greens anymore, it was the people on the inside not letting them leave.
[Mariana]: Julio told me that to stop the prisoners from leaving, Franklin and his men locked them all in the prison.
[Juan]: Or they opened fire on a lot of people who jumped the fence. Prisoners shooting other prisoners. Which isn’t right.
[Daniel]: And Julio, Benjamín and Elio stayed for a while. In other words, they bore it nearly to the end, right?
[Mariana]: Yes because they said, look:
[Juan]: We knew that wherever we went we wouldn’t have a studio like this one, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do our time like we’re doing it because…
[Mariana]: “What other prison will let me spend my sentence doing what I like which is rapping and making music?”
[Juan]: And that was the privilege we had at San Juan.
[Mariana]: And in fact, in the final days, one of the pran’s friends walks by and says:
[Juan]: “The rappers are still here with us?”
[Mariana]: And Julio says:
[Juan]: “We’re going to defend the studio as long as we can.”
[Daniel]: And the people in Franklin’s inner circle, did they stay? Up to the end?
[Mariana]: Ironically, only a few stay, because the people who are most closely connected to him start to jump the fence too.
[Juan]: The bosses started jumping out of the prison. The bosses had already jumped the fence. The bosses had left the people on their own. Doesn’t the captain go down with the ship? No. Only a few people were there on the ship waiting for it to sink.
[Mariana]: When those bosses started abandoning Franklin, they stopped guarding the little food that was left.
[Juan]: We started to open up their rooms and we found rooms full of money, rooms full of food. It was like the anger that everyone had, like, “A-hah!” There was all this food and we had gone 33 days without eating.”
[Mariana]: They grab the food and decide to have one last meal.
[Juan]: Of course, it was like: “Ok, we’re all going to eat.” And everyone said “OK, tomorrow we’re jumping. We’re jumping in the morning.”
[Mariana]: Elio told me they would drop to the floor to lick up some mayonnaise that had fallen.
[Elio]: We grabbed at it like we were ants. I had never seen anything like it in my life and… Everything was horrible.
[Mariana]: And they say they ate from one in the afternoon to three in the morning.
[Mariana]: And well, that’s what they did: they grabbed, ate and jumped…
[Benjamín]: And we got about 15 guys together. We decided to run out and jump and jump. Jump.
[Mariana]: And then the soldiers grabbed them and gave them food and then transferred them to other prisons.
[Daniel]: Did anyone see Franklin in those days?
[Mariana]: Elio. Elio says that…he saw him, alone, in a pavilion.
[Elio]: Crying. Asking us not to jump, saying that if we kept jumping we were helping the other side.
[Mariana]: He asked them to please stop jumping. And the image of man who though he could do anything being so…downtrodden, saddened him.
[Elio]: He thought he was strong and everything…and then he was crying in the end.
[Daniel]: So, tell me about the final days of Franklin Masacre.
[Mariana]: Well, Elio, Julio and Benjamín jump the fence on Thursday and San Juan closes for good on Saturday. On October 28 the National Guard finally manages to make their way in. And they take this man to another prison where he remains today.
[Daniel]: Alright. So when you talk to Julio, Benjamín and Elio now, how do they seem? I mean, do they think back on this and say: “We’re lucky to be alive,” do they feel anguish, do they feel nostalgia for their studio?
[Mariana]: Well, uh…definitely nostalgic, like “what a shame that we managed to get it and lost it this way.” It makes Julio very, very sad and well nostalgic for…what he got and lost.
[Juan]: Yes, angry. Angry that I had to leave my home. And that was something he changed for us with that decision, with his actions.
[Daniel]: And what happened to San Juan, as a physical space? What’s there now?
[Mariana]: Well, sadly, even months after having closed, bodies continue to be found at San Juan today. In fact, in March this year, news like this started coming out:
[Newscaster]: Upsetting discovery in Venezuela…
[Newscaster]: 7 cadavers found by authorities in a communal pit. Inside the prison, the Venezuelan General Penitentiary.
[Newscaster]: NGOs warn that the number of bodies buried there could be greater.
[Mariana]: And for now the death toll is 14. That is the official count. But, from this story, from these guys, we know that the day of the grenade a lot of people died and a lot of people were buried in San Juan. So it’s not odd that bodies keep surfacing. And many people, many mothers, are still waiting to know if their sons or their relatives are buried there.
[Daniel]: You can’t hear this story and not think about the country. I mean, the situation in Venezuela beyond the prison. Today, as I record this…
[Reporter]: There seems to be no end to the crisis in Venezuela and the National Guard’s repression of protesters demanding elections and rejecting the Nicolás Maduro administration.
[Reporter]: This marks the fifth week of protests as well as the fifth week of repression by authorities.
[Reporter]: According to figures from the Attorney General of the Republic at least 34 people have died in these anti government protests which began in the month of April.
[Daniel]: And I asked Mariana this: Can we interpret the story of Franklin Masacre, a prison where the inmates die of hunger, as a metaphor for what’s happening now, in the streets?
[Mariana]: Yes, without a doubt. Maybe these are things you don’t realize when you are immersed in the problem, but…we’re seeing how…how Franklin wanted to control everything and in the end he lost control, something that we’re seeing happening today in Venezuela. In fact, today…even today, outside of the studio there are a lot of people gathering to protest the Nicolás Maduro government…
(SOUNDBITE VIDEO PROTESTS)
They’re going out to protest all the austerity they have experienced in the past three years, since the economic crisis. So yes, let’s say it saddens me, you know, when you say it, but it’s the truth. We could see Venezuela as a version of that San Juan and how people are escaping…like…like the very inmates that escaped, that jumped the fence, to go into the unknown. And Venezuelans are doing to same things. They’re leaving for Colombia. They’re leaving for Brazil, Europe, the US. Many are leaving without any resources, without knowing what’s…what’s ahead for them.
[Daniel]: In March 2017, the National Service of Medicine and Forensic Sciences declared that it had found 15 bodies buried in a mass grave in the former San Juan prison.
After the army took over the penitentiary, Franklin Hernández was transferred to another prison. In December of that same year he was killed in a riot.
We have been able to confirm that Julio was released from prison. We do not know the whereabouts of Benjamín and Elio.
Mariana Zúñiga is producer of the podcast El Hilo, from Radio Ambulante Studios. She lives in Caracas, Venezuela.
This story was edited by Luis Trelles, Camila Segura and myself. Sound design by Andrés Azpiri, with music by Rémy Lozano and Andrés. Thanks to Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles, Carlos Nieto Palma of the organization Una ventana a la libertad and Carlos Hernández.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Arguelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, José Díaz, Emilia Erbetta, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio,, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Bárbara Sawhill, Bruno Scelza, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed in the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.