Architectural marvel is now a notorious Venezuela prison

In 1956 in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, construction began on what was to be the largest shopping mall in the Americas. Its unique, double helix design garnered international attention. It was praised as a symbol of modernity and wealth for Venezuela.

However, plans for the mall were never fully realized. Today the structure, known as El Helicoide, houses the Venezuelan intelligence police and is one of the country’s most notorious prisons.

El Helicoide sits atop a hill in central Caracas and serves as a constant reminder of the changes in Venezuela over the last 60 years. “Through El Helicoide we really do get a metaphor of modern Venezuela,” Lisa Blackmore, director of Latin American studies at the University of Essex, said in a 2019 BBC documentary. “It’s a modern icon, sitting inside a sea of shantytowns.”

The Helicoide that exists today could not be more different from what its original creators intended. Prior to construction, world leaders and organizations from across the globe applauded the building’s architectural innovation. The building consists of a spiral road that envelops an entire hill.

Progress on El Helicoide all but stopped when a coup ousted Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958. The unfinished mall went mostly unused until the mid-1980s, when part of it was given to the country’s intelligence police, known as the SEBIN.

Rosmit Mantilla in T-shirt and cap waving bundled rainbow flag (© Fernando Llano/AP Images)
Venezuelan politician Rosmit Mantilla (©Fernando Llano/AP Images)

Today, the building is famous, but known for the atrocities taking place inside it rather than for its impressive design. Spaces that were designed to hold luxury shops and galleries are prison cells and, in many cases, torture chambers.

El Helicoide holds hundreds of political prisoners who were arrested amidst protests against the regime of Nicolás Maduro.

Rosmit Mantilla, Venezuela’s first openly gay congressman, was among the prisoners. Since his release in 2016, Mantilla has been a loud voice speaking out against the human rights abuses he witnessed inside the mall turned prison. His testimony and that of others have been heavily documented. “The Helicoide is the centre of torture in Venezuela,” Mantilla said in an 2017 account in The Guardian, a British newspaper. “It’s a hell on earth.”

This article was written by freelance writer Maeve Allsup and draws from the Associated Press.