This man was 'the Steve Jobs' of Venezuelan prison gang lords

On January 23, Teofilo Rodriguez Cazorla, also known as “El Conejo,” or “The Rabbit,” was killed on Margarita Island in Venezuela.

Until his release from the island’s San Antonio prison in 2015, after 12 years of incarceration for drug trafficking, Cazorla was one of the country’s most innovative crime lords, turning his prison into a lucrative personal fiefdom.

As Francisco Toro writes at Caracas Chronicles, Cazorla was “a visionary” prison gang boss who personified Venezuela’s social and political breakdown.

Nueva_Esparta_Map_English.svgAt San Antonio, Cazorla ruled over an inverted image of a functioning society: A prison safer, better governed, and more appealing in some ways than the outside, and a place where criminals became one of the few remaining beacons of order.

Toro writes that “El Conejo” was “The Steve Jobs of [prison gang bosses],” turning his prison into a hedonistic moneymaking operation.

But just as importantly, he created “the kind of order the ‘official’ state is no longer in a position to offer,” becoming so indispensable to Margarita’s social harmony — and so widely feared — that schools closed down in the days after his death, with “many of the island’s residents … shutting themselves in their homes this week … [w]aiting to see what happens next.”

Toro links to an astonishing 2011 New York Times report that explains how “El Conejo” pulled this off. Times reporter Simon Romero likened San Antonio prison to a “Hugh Hefner-inspired fleshpot,” with four swimming pools, a disco, a cockfighting arena, and plentiful quantities of both marijuana and crack cocaine.

Screen Shot 2016 01 27 at 1.52.57 PMOutsiders would come to San Antonio — a place that “almost resembles the island’s beach resorts” — to gamble, party, and relax, and “El Conejo” would in turn distribute the profits among fellow prison gang members.

As Toro notes, Cazorla’s criminal enterprises spread beyond San Antonio’s walls: “Virtually every taxi on the island now sports his trademark (-infringing) Playboy Bunny sticker – visual evidence that the drivers had paid their protection money,” he writes. “Nothing seemed to move in Margarita without the rabbit’s say so.”

Crucially, inmate privileges extended beyond hedonism and profiteering, as Cazorla’s gang was also able to amass an impressive arms stockpile.

Romero quotes a 10-year veteran of the British army imprisoned in San Antonio on drug-trafficking charges who marveled at the inmates’ arsenal:  “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.” According to Venezuela’s El Universal, inmates fired automatic weapons from the prison’s roof after Cazorla’s death.

Venezuela protesterThe particular version of order that Cazorla imposed on San Antonio was lucrative for certain inmates, and certainly for himself: Romero interviewed Cazorla “as bodyguards shucked oysters for him.”

But it was order of a decidedly antisocial sort, held together through violence and fear: “A mural at the prison depicts Mr. Rodríguez as conductor of a train, accompanied by gun-wielding subordinates, barreling toward a snitch hanging from a noose,” Romero wrote.

Toro suggests that the prison-lord mentality is already filtering into Venezuelan society as the economy collapses and people lose their little remaining confidence in the country’s political system.

Had Cazorla lived a bit longer, he would have had both the experience and the motivation needed to capitalize amid the chaos. “Asked about his ambitions after incarceration, he said he would consider politics,” writes Romero. 

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