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Wilmito’s Regime

Wilmer José Brizuela became the epitome of 'pran' or leader of the Venezuelan prisons. He imposed its law over the state laws in a prison in the south of the country, in the midst of fierce fighting between clans and a badly perpetrated vengeance, episodes of a medieval saga. His legend, already known in the confines of the penitentiary system, has just gained national effect when a shooting on the island of Margarita showed that he was released with official permission, despite serving a sentence for complicity in a murder. He still has power. The following text is an abbreviated version of a profile originally prepared by the author for the anthology 'Los Malos' (The Bad Ones), published in 2015 by Universidad Diego Portales of Chile, under the editing of Argentinean chronicler Leila Guerriero.

3/19/2017 12:00:00 AM

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“We do not humiliate any man, we rather kill him,” says Wilmer José Brizuela Vera.

- "Wilmito, and what other things do you do to those who disobey the rules you have imposed?

Before giving the answer, he stretches himself on the plastic chair. He takes a deep breath, raises his arms and his belly swells, and as he expels air, he slowly lowers his thick hands until they rest on the square table. It is Wednesday April 30, 2014, and we are in the common areas of the Mínima de Tocuyito, the prison on the outskirts of the city of Valencia, the third most important of Venezuela, capital of the state of Carabobo, where Wilmer José Brizuela Vera, el goldo, as his trusted people also call him, has been transferred to after a riot in the other prison he used to be, Vista Hermosa, in Ciudad Bolívar, southern Venezuela, which closed with two national guards killed by the prisoners he led for eight years. When he finally places his fingers on the surface of the table, he says:

- We do not shoot them in the back, but where it kills. I am not giving orders all day. People die in jail because of the imposed routine. Even if you do not want to, unfortunately you have to follow the rules.

And these are the rules.

Father of nine children conceived with seven women, Wilmito is, paradoxically, the only descendant of Vidalina, the first grandchild of Maria and the first nephew of a great matriarchy. His father, Carlos Delgado, was, at the time he was conceived, a worker in the bauxite industry. In the 70s, promoted by the then President Carlos Andrés Pérez, the State of Bolívar developed a national industry to work with iron and aluminum. Carlos Delgado was one of the men benefited with the jobs generated in the area, and in those years, he had a casual relationship with Vidalina. Remarkably, she only gave birth to one child. In poor Venezuelan families, women usually have many more.

“Mom says that she was always content to have me,” says Wilmito.

Wilmito's is rather a small bedroom. On the back wall, there is a library with three shelves that fills the entire space with many books. On another shelf are his personal effects -colognes, deodorants- and, on the last shelf, the shoes. I count more than ten pairs. Behind the chair occupied by Wilmito are an AR-15 assault rifle and a 9-millimeter pistol. On the head of the bed, a full size, hangs a poster of a tiger with golden frame. Below the photograph I read: "The Lord goes before me. He will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. Do not fear or be intimidated." Wilmito's baritone voice says:

- Tell me, little brother, what do you want?

*** 

I knew Vidalina, Wilmito's mother, one morning in January 2014, at a softball stadium. The Vista Hermosa jail team - called The Hit Man - was enrolled in a game that faces four teams, and Vidalina arrived to cheer Wilmito up, the first-team player. We are in the Medina Angarita neighborhood of Ciudad Bolívar. The houses, painted in shades of pink, ocher or pale blue, have one story, and the power line crosses over the cover plate roofs.

Vidalina, a robust brunette in her fifties, who shows even and very white teeth when she smiles, still lives in the slum Hipódromo Viejo in Ciudad Bolívar, a strip of land between the narrowest margin of the Orinoco River and the Laguna del Medio. She worked as a waitress for many years at Hotel Bolivar, the most important in the city in the decade of the seventies, and when absent, Wilmito’s grandmother María took care of him. The boy grew up in a matriarchy, surrounded by affection, away from drugs and without missing the father figure. He received his last name from a stable partner that Vidalina had while she was pregnant. He accepted the scolding of the neighbors without complaining and without contradicting orders. He played with marbles - here they call them metras - and a spinning top. He attended the Rotario school in the mornings and spent the afternoons playing ball in the dirt streets, under the shade of mango trees.

"They never called me to complain about him," says Vidalina, sitting in the bleacher on two rectangular boards of cracked wood, in the middle of the bustle of the players, who now drink beers.

Wilmito is in the other bleacher with Luis Zamora, a.k.a. Boliqueso (Cheeseball), his second right-hand man and in charge of administering punishments in the prison. The team of prisoners has lost the game against the Brisas del Orinoco team formed by neighbors of that sector, and he did not have a good afternoon.

His sandwich is still intact on the table. Wilmito turns on the DVD and prepares the television for us to watch the show while we have dinner. Voces de la Libertad is an orchestra of prisoners that plays versions of great classics of salsa. On the album cover, I count the names of eighteen people, including technical staff, choristers, singers and musicians. The first piece we hear is Aguanilé, the old song that Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón recorded in a memorable plaque called El Juicio, of 1972, more recently sung by Marc Anthony. The musicians present themselves on a stage that has nothing to envy those seen in the concerts of the established bands.

-That is a party we gave here on the day of Our Lady of Las Mercedes, patron of prisoners.

The stage, he says, was placed at the back of the penitentiary, in the playground, a diamond-shaped ground where they usually play baseball.

***

In October of 2002, when he was 20 years old, Wilmito went to a matinee function at the Atenas nightclub, very fashionable in Ciudad Bolívar, with a friend who was carrying a pistol. Wilmito, dressed in the jacket of the national team of Venezuela, a piece with the colors of the national flag, was talking with some friends when the police arrived at the premises to do a search. He was already a man known for his sporting merits and, taking advantage of that circumstance, his friend handed him the gun he was carrying, to avoid problems. That night, none was spared from the search.

-I think the policeman saw me when I received the “iron”. Everything went very fast. They took my gun, handcuffed me and arrested me. Suddenly things changed for me.

Wilmito says that until that moment he had never committed a crime. But that is not true, as I verified after my visit by checking his criminal record. Since May 13, 2001, he was requested by the sub-delegation of Ciudad Bolívar for robbery. A week later, May 20, he stole again and also did it on October 19, 2001. According to police records, he had committed three offenses before being captured in the nightclub, but he preferred to ignore that detail.

From the disco, he was taken to the jail in Vista Hermosa, where he spent six months. During the first four days, he never left the room. He had managed to get the protection of one of the leaders of the pavilion where he was staying, Luis Oswaldo Martínez. They did not let him see the coliseums, knife fights between prisoners confronted by some dispute, and that are ordered by the pran so that the disputes are resolved. He stopped feeding himself like an athlete (white meat, vegetables, and natural juices) to eat flours and at the wrong time.

When leaving prison with a precautionary measure, the National Sports Institute (IND) submitted its case to the consideration of a disciplinary court in Caracas, which decided to expel him from the national pre-selection of boxing. Wilmito returned disappointed to his home, not wanting to continue training, despite the support given by his mentor, Ángel Salaverría. He had been left out of the Olympic cycle.

Vidalina, his mother, was unemployed, in the middle of a fierce economic contraction due to the Venezuelan oil industry's strike in early 2003. Wilmito began to frequent the friends of the slum who did not have a life but a record. Vidalina asked him not to join the delinquents of the slum. But he had a certainty: he believed that men can never get away from his criminal record, and he, although small, already had one.

The first time he participated in a robbery, it was of a gold and diamond trader at the Ciudad Bolívar airport, a modest terminal that only receives one commercial flight per day from Caracas. Apart from that, planes usually land there with people who transport metals -gold, diamonds- from the mines in the south and west of the State. It was a simple operation, in which he only watched the backs of the peers who assaulted the trader. That debut was followed by several similar operations until, accused of a crime he never acknowledged - the kidnapping of Juliano Elías Abboud, a well-known Arab merchant in the area, on September 26, 2004 – he returned to Vista Hermosa for the second time. It was 2005, and Wilmito was willing to become a leader.

Wilmito spends a lot of time showing me the prison through the screen, and then I ask him to leave the visit for another time. Wilmito accompanies me downstairs to the exit door of the prison. On the way, I ask who puts the money to buy the cameras and televisions. There is no conclusive answer and it will vary in the months that follow. Sometimes he says that they are donations from friends; others, that they were purchased with the money that each prisoner gives to the Pran every Sunday of every month to maintain the facilities.

***

I returned to Vista Hermosa in mid afternoon on Thursday, January 9, 2014. A cool breeze blows and it is not as hot as in December. Juan Carlos Hernández picks me up again at the door, but we do not walk to Wilmito's room. We go through the prison in daylight. While we walk down the corridor of one of the pavilions, Hernández stops and knocks on the door of one of the rooms. We enter a room illuminated by neon lights. A woman is sitting on a double bed, with a girl paralyzed in her arms. Wilmito is at her side. When he sees me, and before extending his hand, he bends to kiss the girl's forehead, which, I will later know, is four years old. Then he uses the index finger and the middle as a pincer to touch her nose and cuddle her by stroking her hair. The air conditioner keeps the room at an almost polar temperature.

When we left, I ask him who she was and he said:

-She was my wife, but I'm not with her anymore. She lives here with my daughter.

Wilmito does not know exactly what happens with the girl, why she is paralyzed. He left that woman, whom he does not even mention by name, for another one, and replaced the other with another one and so on.

We continue walking down the corridor that leads to the central patio. There are two children playing there. One of them -small, burly, dark and with almost straight hair- wears a Barcelona shirt and must be about six years old. He looks a lot like Wilmito and, in fact, is one of his children. Before continuing, he takes a few seconds to play with him. Father and son are placed in combat position, with the left leg more advanced, semi-lowered, and with the fists at chin height. Afterwards, they join their right fists, as if they were playing superheroes. Juan Carlos Hernández and I continue on our way and Wilmito goes to his room.

On this day of January, the tour of the prison ends on the court, which is very well preserved. Two teams of prisoners play football. Some have t-shirts from clubs like Arsenal or Real Madrid; others, wear t-shirts from local clubs: Deportivo Táchira and Caracas Fútbol Club.

Wilmito is one of the players. He accompanies the play with elephant parsimony and do not lock the ball in the middle of the field. Standing near the band, always wait unmarked the last pass to kick the goal. On two occasions, the goalkeeper blocks the ball, but in the third, Wilmito receives at the top of the area, dribbles an opponent who slides to get the ball, and hits the angle. There is no excessive applause after the goal. Wilmito returns walking to the middle of the court that defends his team, and occupies his position of winger. I do notice the effort of the rivals not to kick him.

Boliqueso is sitting next to me, oblivious to what happens in the game, because he entertains himself with his last-generation smartphone. Wilmito's bodyguards are positioned at the corners of the court and behind us with long weapons. The first thing that Boliqueso tells me is that he is responsible for the prisoners to learn to live together. That phrase sounds strange in the mouth of a man who barely opens his lips, with short phrases and wide silences. Suddenly, all his authority is evident when two of his right-hand men appear before us escorting a man who transgressed one of the Pran's commandments. The previous night, a prisoner left a cell phone forgotten in the stands of the court. Through the cameras, someone saw that this nervous man, who is now standing in front of us, was hiding it in his clothes.

The man begins to gesticulate with pompous movements when accused of theft.

-No, causa, do you think I'm going to keep an eye on that phone?

In prison jargon, "causa" means close friend or ally. Boliqueso barely looks at him and looks at his own phone. The man continues gesticulating, with a nickel-plated pistol in his hand. One, two, three times he raises and lowers his arms in a visible gesture of displeasure, while trying to explain that he has not taken the device. When he repeats the gesture for the fourth time, I am afraid that a shot will escape, and I close my eyes. Suddenly, Boliqueso's voice says:

-Get the gun from him and let him go back to the roof.

The man surrenders the weapon and leaves, kicking the air. During my first visit, I had seen several men on the platform of the pavilions, but I supposed that up there, as the afternoon was falling, they were distracted by looking towards the horizon, or were looking for the cool breeze that, at the level of the asphalt, is barely felt. But no. those inmates who transgress the rules imposed by the Pran are left on the roof for days. And they cannot go down until they are authorized to do so.

Wilmito finishes playing and walks towards us. One of the bodyguards offers him a chair. He almost throws himself on it in the effort to regain the normal rhythm of the pulsations. He looks pretty tired. A few minutes later, he invites me to go to his room.

"That scene that you witnessed, the boy who stole the cell phone, is one of the ways we have to impose discipline," he says, once we settle into the room.

- But here in Vista Hermosa worse things have happened?

-As which? Wilmito asks, leaning back in a plastic chair.

The sweaty shirt rests on the back of the seat.

Weeks later they prepared to attack those in the Observation area. Wilmito felt particular contempt for them. On the morning of November 15, 2005, a man from the band who was in charge there "sang a light". In prison jargon, that means no one can move from where they are. Those are moments of great tension, because weapons can be moving from one hiding place to another, and then discretion is needed. But an inmate of that sector, who was imprisoned for having stolen a pig, disobeyed and he was killed. At two in the afternoon of that day, Wilmito, disgusted, said to the parquero, the man who knows where weapons are kept:

-Get everything ready because we're going to take that shit.

They complied. After the Observation area, Wilmito and his band took the Workshop area. Then the Rancho and the Annex fell. In 2006, he had control over the entire prison and had established the rules: respect the inmate's visit above all things (whoever did not do so would have to pay with his life); never reveal to the National Guard the place where the ammunition and weapons are hidden; and never try to deprive him of his unofficial authority.

***

Mariela Casado wanted to return to Valencia, where she was originally from. She had spent a lot of time facing a hostile environment that did not allow her to work comfortably. She had confessed to her relatives that she did not feel like a free woman. Half of her freedom, she said, had been lost when she became a lawyer, and she was slowly losing the other half in her stony practice.

Wilmito's curses added another reason to her desire to leave the city. It was not the first threat she received, it is true, but she had already lost the strength that led her to endure the pressures for five years. She then recalled how from 2005 to 2010, she had decided to refrain from knowing any cause related to him to avoid the torture of dealing with Vidalina, the mother of the Pran, and Maria, the grandmother, who were always at the courts to demand anything, from alternative measures to the confinement to serve the sentence or the return of Wilmito to his city of origin.

Mariela Casado took it upon herself to leave these threats in a complaint filed with the Prosecutor's Office of the state of Bolívar. Today, her relatives think that thanks to that eagerness to document everything, the way was cleared to solve the crime that drove her away from the country. On June 6, 2007, based on the record, she had revealed that in several messages sent to her collaborators' cell phones, she was threatened with death. Two of them said, "Wilmel (sic), we have to fuck Mariela Casado, the judge of Ciudad Bolívar. I already planned the robbery (...) Shot her. And another said, "The pals went to jail to visit Wilmito and he planned everything. Be alert, tell Cara de Ratón (mouse face)."

She did not have to doubt his word. When on March 23, 2007 the local press published the murder of four men who had few hours inside the prison, Wilmito called her to confirm the rumors in the street. "They are saying that I killed those boys. I want you to know that I did kill them in retaliation for the death of a cousin, whom they murdered." He had warned the judge before his victims arrived in jail. "They will not come out alive from here." And he honored his word. The press assured that one of the victims was tortured and mutilated. Wilmito's men placed his eyes and head inside some glass containers.

Wilmito does not threaten. Wilmito acts.

***

The prisoners began to kill themselves for the control of the Vista Hermosa prison after Wilmito's absence. In February 2010, Ausberto Medrano, a.k.a. Niño Criminal (Criminal Child), who was part of his clan, assumed control. During his leadership, Frank Viamonte died after a conflict between inmates, and Ronny Rodríguez and Wilber Hernández, died half an hour after entering the prison. Niño Criminal escaped on October 19, 2010, and was shot down by police in a confrontation one month later. Pata'e loro (Parrot Leg) took control then, with whom the string of deaths followed. Eleven days after his coronation, on October 30, they shot Miguel José Bolívar Solís, Roger Ernesto Requena García, José Wilfredo Bejarano Vargas and two other unidentified inmates, in the midst of a riot for control of Vista Hermosa. And months later, the government of Marlon Alirio Guevara - who had replaced Pata'e loro, who had been transferred to another prison - culminated in a tragic manner, riddled with over 20 bullet wounds.

***

Mariela Casado felt that a man followed her every time she returned home from the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, an institution created by Commander Chávez to expand the educational offer. It was the month of April 2010 and the ruling judge complied with some reluctance with one of the latest commitments in Ciudad Bolívar.

Marlon Medina, dark, colored hair, is one of the robbers who now drives the car that goes back to Ciudad Bolívar. He feels happy because he will soon have in his pocket 5,000 bolivars that El Pucho, the boss of the operation, had offered him, for looking for the SUV that the boss needs. The boss is also called el goldo Wilmer (fatso Wilmer) or Wilmito. The boss is determined to kill Judge Mariela Casado in four more days and has ordered a car for the mission.