Prison officials remain on hunger strike in front of the headquarters of the Paraguayan Ministry of Justice, on October 23, 2023, in Asunción (Paraguay). EFE/ Rubén Peña

Prisons, Paraguay’s decade-long challenge

Asunción, Oct 26 (EFE).- Without having completed his first 100 days in office, Paraguayan President Santiago Peña has already faced a protest by inmates at the country’s largest prison, highlighting a decades-long challenge for the government: prisons.

What began as a call for a press conference by Tacumbú inmates led by the Rotela clan – an organization that authorities have linked to drug trafficking – quickly turned into a protest on Oct. 10.

Photograph of the Tacumbú prison, on October 25, 2023, in Tacumbú (Paraguay). EFE/ Daniel Piris

The riot quickly escalated, and the prison director and about twenty guards were taken hostage.

Peña announced in a press conference on Oct. 11 that they had regained control of Tacumbú, where, he warned, 2,700 inmates live together, of whom “1,600” are in judicial process, that is, without a definitive sentence.

Since then, the boat seems to be still rocking.

Last week, relatives of inmates protested at the Ministry of Justice, and some guards have refused to enter the prison since the riot.

Prison workers also arrived in Asunción on Monday from different parts of the country and began a hunger strike to demand better working conditions.

Pre-trial detention

The prisoners’ protest, which Peña refused to characterize as a crisis but rather as a “confrontation with crime,” is one of the many symptoms of a disease that has already become endemic.

“This is a crisis that today is called the Tacumbú National Penitentiary, but tomorrow could be any one of the 18 penitentiaries throughout the country,” said Sonia Von Lepel, commissioner and acting president of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture (MNP).

Paraguay’s prisons hold 17,554 inmates, according to the Ministry of Justice.

11,000 prisoners have state-appointed lawyers because they do not have the economic means to pay for their defense.

Police monitor about 50 officials of the penitentiary system who began a hunger strike at the doors of the Ministry of Justice in Asunción October 23, 2023 in Asunción (Paraguay). EFE/ Rubén Peña

According to Von Lepel, there is also an “abuse of preventive detention” to guarantee the submission of people to criminal proceedings.

“Of the total population, 70% are in preventive detention and only 30% are convicted,” she explained.

Experts and authorities agree that the prison system ends up being overcrowded because preventive detention is used to reduce crime.

Theft or aggravated robbery and other crimes against property are punished with this measure, above cases against life, according to von Lepel.

The Vice Minister of Criminal Policy, Rodrigo Nicora, expressed the same sentiment, pointing out that his country leads the statistics of “the application of preventive detention in South America.”

This with a system that Nicora described as “obsolete”, since in other countries of the region, penitentiaries are more than 80 or 90 years old, suffering from overcrowding, lack of personnel or with officials whose “remuneration is not correct.”

“It’s a combination of many problems and it has been going on for a long time,” the vice minister added.


The overcrowding that plagues Paraguay’s prisons is not uncommon in Latin American countries.

Tacumbú is another example, as the criminologist and doctor of the University of Barcelona, Juan Martens Molas, puts it, of the “failure” of the penal system, where power ends up in the hands of the inmates.

Inaugurated in 1955 in a traditional neighborhood of Asunción that bears the same name, Tacumbú was originally built to house about 800 inmates, according to the press.

Photograph of the entrance to the Tacumbú prison, on October 25, 2023, in Tacumbú (Paraguay). EFE/ Daniel Piris

The MNP’s 2022 Statistical Yearbook estimates the overcrowding in this prison at 607%, according to human rights criteria that require a minimum of 7 square meters per person, and yet it is not the most overcrowded prison in the country.

Tacumbú, because it is located in the country’s capital, is considered safer, so it became a destination for those captured for drug trafficking or other serious crimes, Martens told EFE.

“They are buildings stacked on top of each other, it looks like a village, it doesn’t have a prison structure,” he said, describing the place.

He even pointed out that many of these reforms are due to the inmates themselves, such as the Brazilian drug trafficker Jarvis Chimenes Pavao, who was extradited to his country in December 2017 and who – he assured – “built a pavilion and a huge chapel.”

The Minister of Justice, Ángel Barchini, confessed days ago to journalists that in this prison there are “dangerous animals”, “cockfights”, as well as problems with weapons and drugs, among others.

The Brazilian criminal gang First Capital Command (PCC) and, more recently, the Rotela clan have had a presence in this prison.

And although the recent protest has reignited the controversy over whether or not there is effective state control, authorities and experts agree on the need to develop a plan to put Tacumbú out of business.

The strategy, she said, must include separating inmates with preventive measures from those who have already been sentenced and ensuring that the inmates’ basic needs are met, such as food and the supply of personal hygiene and cleaning products.

Nicora pointed out that the government is planning to open three new detention centers, which will require an investment – in equipment alone – of at least six million dollars for each center.EFE

Laura Barros