Life as a Political Prisoner in Colombia


If you are a political prisoner in one of Colombia’s prisons you have to fight for your life every single day of your detention. A substantial section of the prison guard, working with the police and the army openly supply paramilitary prisoners with the weapons and logistical support to intimidate and attack guerrilla prisoners of war or other political prisoners.

On 31 March 2000, an agreement on “cooperation regarding prisons” was signed by the US ambassador to Colombia and the then Colombian Minister for Justice which was called “Programme for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System”.

Using the pretext that it was to control the illegal activities inside prisons of people who were allegedly involved in drugs trafficking the government of the United States would provide financial and technical aid for a new style of penitentiary establishment.

The new model imposed on Colombia’s prisons by the Federal Prisons Bureau (FPB), supreme examples being the high-security units at Valledupar, Acacias and Girardot, in which more than 4.5 million dollars have been invested, has been designed to increase the repression and intimidation of those who are fighting for the rights of the people. With the new agreement, Colombian prisons have been turned into “theatres of military operation”, where civil authority is subordinate to military and police authority and where universal and constitutional human rights are persistently violated.

Early in 2001, the former government of Andres Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) struck a deal to reignite the peace process in which both parties would release an agreed number of their prisoners of war. The FARC kept their side of the bargain of releasing an initial 50 prisoners and then, by their own decision, went beyond that as a gesture of goodwill towards the peace process, since unilaterally terminated by Andres Pastrana under pressure from the United States, and released a total of around 250 prisoners.

The government on the other hand only released 14 of the approximately 50 sick prisoners initially agreed. Many of those not released were immediately sent to the new US-designed high-security prisons. They had their heads shaved and their feet shackled and they were put in almost permanent solitary confinement with greatly restricted visiting. Many suffer serious health problems and receive no medical care. One such political prisoner who had been on the release list has lost the sight in one eye through glaucoma and is close to losing his sight in the other if he does not get an operation quickly.

It appears that political prisoners are invariably sent to those prisons with the highest concentrations of paramilitary inmates. Here, the National Police, military Rapid Response Forces and the US-trained Inpec Prison Guard frequently parade through the corridors and cells where political prisoners are being held, making intimidating references to their murderous paramilitary house guests.

There is complacency and at times open complicity by the prison authorities with the paramilitary groups inside prisons who not only get preferential treatment, but are openly supplied with money and weapons which they then use to provoke, attack and kill political prisoners.

At Palmira prison in Valle; the Modelo in Bucaramanga; Bellavista prison in Medellin; and, just last year, in the National Modelo prison in Bogota, heavily armed paramilitary units inside the prisons in collusion with the prison guard and the national police orchestrated vicious attacks on the political prisoners being held there.

The open interference of the United States in matters of justice and the manipulation of Colombia’s prison system by the Federal Prisons Bureau has led to new levels of intimidation, humiliation and the constant violation of human rights.

According to the Political Prisoners Collective “Adan Izquierdo”, founded by FARC-EP prisoners in Valledupar high security prison, their members are severely tortured and grossly mistreated by the Inpec prison guard. Every time the FARC takes any action against paramilitaries on the outside, the prison guard punishes the prisoners inside with beatings and other forms of torture. It is their way of demonstrating their allegiance to the state paramilitary strategy.

The prisoners are denied the right to stay in touch with events outside the prison walls and are forbidden to receive newspapers or magazines. They are not allowed radio or television. Getting medical treatment requires extreme measures such as cutting the veins in their own wrists to attract attention. This is what one prisoner Enrique Horta Valle was forced to do when he desperately needed to see a doctor. They are frequently kept in their cells for 24 hours a day.

Visiting family and friends are warned by the paramilitaries patrolling the prisons that they will be killed if they ever come back. The Inpec guard goes to great lengths to point out which visitors are coming to see political prisoners.

Life inside is a constant battle for survival both physically and mentally. When Inpec gave the order for FARC political prisoner Yesid Arteta to be transferred to Valledupar prison, which operates under such high security measures that it violates the constitutional rights of the inmates, his head was completely shaved, he was made to wear a prisoner’s uniform and he was kept chained up in his cell almost all the time.

He is not able to go outside for even the short amount of time allowed by the penitentiary regime because the paramilitaries being detained in the same prison have orders to assassinate him and no one in authority is likely to stop them. Contact with his lawyer, Jose Absalon Achury, is difficult, if not impossible, because he has received death threats and for security reasons cannot travel to Valledupar.

Jorge Augusto Bernal is another FARC political prisoner with a price on his head. Paramilitaries are offering money to whoever kills him first.

The Collective has written to the current government of Alvaro Uribe Velez about the conditions for political prisoners. It may come of no surprise that their pleas have gone unheeded by a regime set on (para)militarizing prisons still further.

“We are certain that the prisoners being held by our organization in the mountains of Colombia are in better conditions than us,” they maintain. And add, “Our revolutionary fighting spirit will never be beaten out of us, but our health and life deteriorate a little more every day.”

Few people are aware of the conditions in which political prisoners are kept, especially since the new high-security prison culture was foist upon Colombia by the Federal Prisons Bureau (FPB) of the United States. Chained hands and feet, shaven heads, uniforms and solitary confinement, moving prisoners to locations far, far away from their families, friends and legal support, all techniques designed to break the spirit, have become standard practice. The prisons are run to the dictates of the FPB and are staffed by paramilitaries disguised as Inpec guards.

Perhaps of most concern in Valledupar is the safety of those political prisoners kept in the cells of Tower One, 5th Floor, and Tower Five, Isolation and Special Treatment Wing. Humanitarian organizations never get to inspect these areas of the prison. The prison management and Inpec will not permit it.

VINCENZO GONZALEZ is a member of the Colombia Peace Association. This story was published originally by ANNCOL.

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