By day, they could saunter around a mini zoo admiring ostriches and flamingos, then have a game of baseball or a refreshing dip in the swimming pool. By night, they could crack open a few ice-cold beers with their wives and mistresses before heading to a nightclub called Tokio.
It may sound like a holiday resort, but this lavish range of facilities was enjoyed not by tourists but by inmates at Venezuela’s most notorious prison.
For more than 20 years, the Tocorón jail was the unofficial headquarters of Venezuela’s most powerful and violent criminal gang, a ruthless network which ran drug trafficking, prostitution rings, illegal gold mining and extortion as far afield as Chile and Peru, as well as in neighbouring Colombia.
It was described as “a city within a prison”, with drug lords from the Tren de Aragua cartel free to live the high life with their families and run their criminal activities from behind bars.
Not anymore. In an unprecedented operation, the authorities on Wednesday sent in 11,000 soldiers and police to smash the cartel and regain control of the facility, located about 100 miles south-west of the capital Caracas.
Amid reports of violent clashes and injuries, both to security forces and prisoners, tank-like armoured vehicles were seen rumbling into the prison, some of them painted white and identified as ambulances.
It was a huge undertaking – security personnel had to deal not only with the prisoners inside the jail, but the estimated 300 families who lived with them.
Inside, they found an arsenal of weapons – automatic rifles, pistols and boxes of ammunition.
Police from an anti-drug unit came across a murky pond in which a group of flamingos were kept.
Officers were seen confiscating televisions and microwaves from inmates’ cells.
A huge fire broke out, consuming the flimsy shacks in which inmates’ families lived, with plumes of smoke rising into the sky.
“I was living in there, but they kicked us out,” said Gladys Hernández, whose husband was an inmate.
Police also discovered well-constructed tunnels, down which some drug bosses are believed to have fled as the raid unfolded.
One of the gang leaders to have reportedly escaped was Héctor Guerrero Flores, alias Niño Guerrero (Boy Warrior), the leader of the Tren de Aragua syndicate. He ran the prison as his personal fiefdom while serving a 17-year sentence for murder and drug trafficking.
The Venezuelan government issued a statement in which it said it had launched an operation to capture all the prisoners who fled as the net closed in.
The authorities said that the objective had been to “dismantle and put an end to organised crime gangs and other criminal networks that operated from the Tocorón Penitentiary Centre”. The government congratulated the police and army for regaining “total control” of the prison in the northern state of Aragua.
Years of turning a blind eye meant that the murderers and drug dealers of the Tren de Aragua gang could enjoy a relatively privileged life within the sprawling facility, from betting on horse races to accessing an unofficial bank.
The arrangement, sanctioned by prison authorities, involved “inmates taking control of several prisons across the country in exchange for maintaining order, reducing homicides and ending jail uprisings”, according to InSight Crime, a think tank that investigates criminal organisations in Latin America.
Caracas simply did not have the power to enforce law and order inside the country’s penitentiaries.
The Venezuelan authorities gave few details about exactly how the operation unfolded, the extent of casualties or how much damage had been done to the jail. They did say that inmates would be transferred to other facilities.
But why has he acted now, after years of allowing the gangs to operate with impunity from within the prison complex?
There are several possible reasons, not least the pressure that he has come under from other Latin American countries to crack down on the criminal organisation, which has wreaked havoc across the continent.
The massive raid may also be an attempt to project a strongman image, after a recent humiliation involving an operation against dissident elements of the Farc rebel group from Colombia.
When the president sent Venezuelan soldiers to dismantle drug trafficking infrastructure that Farc had set up on Venezuelan territory, eight soldiers were captured and the force had to beat a hasty retreat.
“This might explain the apparent overkill with the Tocorón operation: Maduro clearly did not want any further defeats or humiliations,” said InSight Crime.
The president also faces elections next year. After years of sanctions and opprobrium, above all from the United States, he is keen to regain some legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Cracking down on the notorious prison may be one way of doing that.
Experts caution that this is unlikely to be the end of the Tren de Aragua criminal network, which has about 5,000 members and is one of the most powerful in Latin America.
Dr Christopher Sabatini, an expert on Latin America at the London School of Economics and Chatham House, said that the chronically overcrowded prison has been ruled for years by “the law of the jungle”, where rough justice was meted out by inmates, not prison officers.
Alongside bars and a nightclub, it even boasted a brothel.
“It became a command and control centre for these criminal networks,” he told the Telegraph. “There was a devil’s bargain – the inmates were left alone by the prison officers,” said Dr Sabatini.
“You have to understand that Venezuela is not a normal functioning state. There is massive complicity between the state and criminal groups. There are ministers and public officials who are deeply embedded in the narcotics trade. There’s a culture of impunity and criminality. This is by no means the only prison in Venezuela that is run by the inmates.”
He is sceptical about whether the raid signals the end of the Tren de Aragua gang. “I think we’ll see the balloon effect – you apply pressure on one side and it just bulges out on the other side. It’s impossible to imagine it will be stamped out altogether.”
Ronna Rísquez, the author of the book Tren de Aragua: The gang that revolutionised organised crime in Latin America, told the BBC: “Their centre of operations has been closed down, but the leaders of this organisation and its cells that are outside Venezuela can continue operating.”
“Just because Tocorón is closed, it does not mean that Tren de Aragua is eliminated.”