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The escort, a prisoner in flip-flops and a stained T-shirt, raps on the metal door. A pair of eyes peer from a slit before the door opens. Inside is a corridor where men in jeans and tracksuits doze, play dominoes and smoke cigarettes. It does not look like much, but this is a haven for foreigners languishing in Venezuela's prison system, widely considered one of the world's most brutal and corrupt. I was threatened with rape, called a 'gringo' and told I would be killed," says Mark Viljoen, a year-old South African.
Like almost all the 1, foreigners in Venezuelan jails, including 23 Britons, he was caught trying to smuggle cocaine. The drug mules are typically given eight years in overcrowded jails notorious for extortion, riots and beheadings. Last year inmates were killed and wounded, according to the watchdog group Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, which has a booklet with pictures of burned and mangled corpses.
British consuls do not visit British nationals in three jails - Rodeo 1, Rodeo 2 and Yare - because they are too dangerous. A Canadian consul who visited Los Teques, west of the capital, Caracas, ended up in the middle of a gun battle.
The government says things will improve. The penal system director, Fanny Marquez Cordero, said the interior and justice ministry had studied California jails and was sending staff to Spain for training, paving the way for reform.
For now, however, she acknowledged that Venezuela was left with 30 dilapidated facilities racked with corruption and repression. While speaking to the Guardian, Ms Cordero was phoned by a prisoner using a mobile phone. Los Teques, billed as one of the better facilities, is a three-storey block with seven wings housing inmates, including foreigners. The ground floor regularly erupts into pitched battles between rival gangs, the gunshots and screams echoing around the complex.