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Venezuela's U.N. for Drug Traffickers

Shouting Venezuelan girls play kickball in a courtyard. A fair-skinned British girl nearby answers a ringing pay phone in Spanish, jumps to answer a second phone in English, then jokes to a French girl at the adjacent food stand: "I don't know which language to answer in."

Recess at a school for the children of the diplomatic corps? Nope, it's the female penitentiary outside Caracas, where Venezuela sends foreigners caught smuggling cocaine.

The inmates are a far cry from the stereotype of the impoverished local-girl-turned-mule by unscrupulous traffickers. Clearly, many middle-class Americans and Europeans are ready to do dirty work for drug rings too, and many of the unsuccessful end up here with eight-year sentences. Their life in lock-up can hold unusual luxuries — and unusual dangers.

As inmates tell it, Venezuela's prisons are run not by the guards, but by the prisoners — and guns and drugs have become common currency inside prison walls. At the nearby male prison, which holds three times its capacity of prisoners, shoot-outs are a regular occurrence. Frightened foreign inmates say the understaffed, underarmed guards cannot stem the violence and do not even clean off the blood marks splattered across the walls.

"Nothing here makes sense," one inmate at the men's penitentiary told TIME, speaking — as all interviewed prisoners did — on condition of anonymity. "You can't apply logic. There's the law, and then there's what actually happens."

Venezuelan prisons are notoriously violent, and news of riots is common in the local press. Last January, 16 inmates at the Uribana prison were hanged, killed and stabbed to death as rival gangs battled for control. Inmates often rebel or go on hunger strikes to protest long procedural delays that leave them locked up for years before they're given a sentence. The Venezuelan Prison Observatory, a Caracas-based NGO, says that the country's jail system has the worst homicide rate in Latin America, calculating that 22 of every 1,000 inmates died violently in 2006.

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