Part One in a Series on US Designed Repression in Colombia’s Prison System
By James Jordan
Special to The Narco News Bulletin – August 17, 2010
The name commonly used to refer to the Medium and High Security penitentiary of Valledupar is “La Tramacúa.” What that name means exactly, no one is certain. But it is a name that is infamous throughout Colombia and has become synonymous with reports of torture, beatings and hellish conditions. It conjures up images similar to what we in the United States imagine when we hear the words “Abu Ghraib” or “Guantanamo.” Unlike those prisons, La Tramacua is not directly staffed by the United States government. It was, however, the first of a series of prisons in Colombia to be designed and overseen by the USBureau of Prisons. The US government provided at least $4.5 million toward the development of La Tramacúa.
In fact, Colombia’s entire medium and maximum security system has been restructured with the partnership and management of the US government. Referred to as the “New Penitentiary Culture,” this partnership stands to usher in a “new culture” of repression and intimidation by increasing the capacity of these institutions by 40 percent, or 24,000 new prisoners. Colombia’s political prisoners are being concentrated in the harshest locations and forced to inhabit prisons with high populations of paramilitary prisoners. Paramilitaries are members of private “death squads” that are allied with the Colombian military and political right wing, private business owners and transnational corporations such as Chiquita, Drummond Coal and Coca-Cola. Along with their military allies, they are responsible for 80% of Colombia’s political violence.
In 2000, the US Ambassador and the Colombian Minister of Justice signed an agreement called the Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System. On the basis of this document the US would provide support to build new prisons throughout Colombia and to restructure the penal system on a US model, one emphasizing security over all other considerations, including the education and resocialization of inmates. The first of these prisons would be in the city of Valledupar, Department of César: La Tramacúa. It was considered to be a model for the “New Penitentiary Culture” and is often referred to as the “the most secure prison in the country”.
La Tramacúa is a modern facility, operational as of November, 2000. As a modern facility one would expect modern conditions. Instead, inmates are only allowed access to water…a trickle coming out of a pipe…ten minutes a day. Sanitation facilities are filthy and more often than not, backed up and not working. Prisoners are frequently fed spoiled food found to contain fecal matter. In 2001, the Office of the UN’s High Commission for Human Rights announced the discovery of fecal contamination after a visit to Valledupar. In 2008, the situation was corroborated by a microbial analysis by the office of the Secretary of Health for the Department of César.
A delegation from the Spanish principality of Asturias tried to visit La Tramacúa in February of this year, but was turned away—the first time this had happened to such a delegation. But based on past visits, interviews with inmates and the work of previous delegations, they gave this description:
“The place suffers extreme temperatures of 35-40 degrees (95-104 degrees Fahrenheit), without any mechanism for alleviation.
“In addition [the prison] suffers from serious structural failures, foremost the lack of water and use of deficient sewer systems, in which open sewage passes near the kitchen.
“Getting water, putting it in plastic bottles and climbing to the second, third, fourth, fifth floor, becomes the priority for survival of the prisoners, the motive behind fights, of coercion and corruption of the prison personnel.”
The bleak conditions are corroborated by Tatiana Cárdenas in an August 13, 2009 article for Colombia’s El Mundo newspaper:
“The inmates lack the minimum sanitary conditions; there is no water, the place is constantly surrounded with excrement from the same prisoners who, not having sanitary services to use, throw bags [of their waste] outside the prison and the lower floors….
“‘The smell you sense from before arriving is a stench that makes one feel sick. The flies are everywhere and the heat is unbearable,’ remembers Catalina [recalling a visit to her imprisoned husband]….”
A report by Radio Guatapurí illustrates the degree to which conditions at La Tramacúa can sink:
“It has been five days that water has not come to the different towers [of the prison], so much so that the inmates may be at the point of collapse, and the center of incarceration in an imminent sanitary emergency because of the accumulation of malodorous fecal materials and the little opportunity they have to bathe and wash clothes. At the most there is some to drink, said a desperate inmate who called the César Tribune.
“A volunteer for the Fire Department, said that water is getting to “La Tramacúa”, but it is not sufficient for the necessities they have.
“The Director of Valledupar’s Public Services recognized that there is low pressure and reported it is because the farms are breaking into the water lines of the system passing through the area in order to water their fields.”
The diversion of water to these farms has been exacerbated by the fact that Valledupar is a major paramilitary center. The Asturian delegation describes “…a theft of water destined for the jail by the surrounding farms, and when an official tried to stop this theft, he was fired. Why? Because in Valledupar there is the paramilitary presence and domination, and these farms belong to paramilitary murderers such as the “Jorge 40,” holders of political and economic power in the region.”
Because of the conditions, Valledupar suffers from a high suicide rate. Just a month after the situation described by Radio Guatapurí, an inmate was hanged in the custody of guards. There are some, however, that claim this was not a suicide, but an execution.
What is the attitude of the authorities toward the many suicides? In 2009 in Tower Nine, Alexandra Correa, hanged herself. When the women prisoners’ human rights representative, Esmeralda Echeverry, reported beforehand that Correa and her partner, Tatiana Pinzon, were threatening to kill themselves, the then-Director of INPEC (Colombia’s National Institute of Penitentiaries and Jails) Dr. Teresa Moya Suta responded, “Let her kill herself—I will assume responsibility.” A week later when INPEC’s second-in-command, Col. Carlos Alberto Barragán, visited the prison, he laughed in her face when Pinzon fell to her knees, begging to be transferred from Valledupar. When Moya Suta vacated her position, Barragán was promoted to the top position.
Nevertheless, a significant victory has been won with the closure of Tower Nine and the transfer of the women inmates from La Tramacúa. These prisoners had received no consideration or treatment specific to their status as women. Tower Nine was also home to one of the largest concentrations of women political prisoners.
After a campaign of several years initiated by the inmates and supported by the Committee in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (FCSPP-Federación Comité en Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos), the tower was closed on March 26th. The efforts of the Asturian delegation and statements by United Nations and international groups were important catalysts for this victory, along with the struggles of the women and their Colombian supporters. But it was not a victory without sacrifice. Luciano Romero was a unionist and a member of the FCSPP active in the campaign. He was assassinated after returning from a six month visit to Asturias.
Meanwhile, harsh conditions persist for the men of La Tramacúa. On July 13th, 2010, the Campaña Permanente de Solidaridad con las Detenidas y Los Detenidos Políticos/Traspaso Los Muros distributed an alert concerning the prisoners of La Tramacúa’s Fourth Tower:
“Today we received more information about the serious health conditions suffered over the last three months by 40 political prisoners in Tower 4 in Valledupar. The alarming symptoms are loss of hair and nails as well as bleeding from the mouth and in their bowel movements. They have repeatedly requested medical attention as well as medicines to help decrease their ailments. These requests have been denied by INPEC. These negligent acts…have enabled the spread of the symptoms, which are caused by unsanitary detention conditions.”
For the political prisoners and prisoners of war, the problems are multiplied. Housed where paramilitary criminals are also concentrated, the danger of violence is a daily concern. The paramilitary inmates are granted privileges not available to others and are known to carry weapons, sometimes provided by the guards themselves. Beatings, torture and collective punishment are common at the hands of both the guards and paramilitary gangs.
In an article titled “Life as a Political Prisoner in Colombia”, Vincenzo Gonzalez writes,“…Colombian prisons have been turned into ‘theaters of military operation’, where civil authority is subordinate to military and police authority and where universal and constitutional human rights are persistently violated….”
According to the Political Prisoners Collective “Adan Izquierdo”, founded by FARC-EP prisoners at La Tramacúa, 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.”
A British study carried out in the late 1970s listed some of the forms of torture occurring in Colombian jails, including simulated drowning, simulated executions (usually referring to “firing” an unloaded pistol to the head), and beatings with blunt instruments while handcuffed. With the “New Penitentiary Culture,” these old practices have not disappeared. In the first six months of 2008, INPEC’s office for internal disciplinary control documented some 79 cases of physical and/or verbal abuse directed at prisoners. These included broken bones, beatings, hog-tying prisoners with both hands and feet handcuffed, sexual harassment, threats of death and the denial of medical care.
Between April and June, 2008, the FCSPP carried out a survey with 230 prisoners. When asked if the inmates had been tortured at least once during their jail time, 54% answered they had — 46% did not answer the question. Eighty-six percent said that they had experienced psychological torture, including threats to relatives and simulated executions. At least one Director in one of these “New Penitentiary Culture” prisons has had training at the School of the Americas in psychological operations — Col. José Alfonso Bautista Parra. SOAis infamous for its training in techniques of both physical and psychological torture.
The Colombian Coalition Against Torture explains that between July 2003 and June 2008, “at least 899 persons were victims of torture….Of all the cases where the alleged perpetrator is known (666 victims), in 92.6% of the cases the State’s responsibility is involved ….During the same period, the number of victims of torture dropped by 43.56% compared to the cases registered between July 1998 and June 2003. However, the increase by 80.2% in the number of registered cases directly attributed to the Army and Security forces (Army and Police-Fuerza Pública) is worrying.”
Not included in this study were cases of prison torture. However, the skyrocketing increase in incidents of torture by the Public Forces may be some indication. Many of Colombia’s medium and maximum security institutions are under the command of active and retired officers of the Public Forces. This is further evidence of Gonzalez’ assertion that these prisons have been turned into “theaters of military operation.” One also wonders if the general increase in torture is less a decrease than a concentration of such practices in the prisons.
Citizens of the US may well ask why the US has invested time, money and oversight in the Colombian prison system and, especially, in La Tramacúa. Former political prisoner Gustavo Mendoza explains,
“…the Interior Minister said recently that overcrowding is the main cause of the violations of the rights of prisoners. As a…solution, the Minister announced the construction of 11 new prisons with a capacity of 24,000 inmates-an increase of 40% of total capacity at the national level….Thus the Minister unveils plans [in keeping with the goals of]…Phase 2 of Plan Colombia, whose basic theme is the social control of the territory….Phase 2 of the plan is realized through the prosecution of activists from the social movement. By undermining the so-called ‘investor confidence’, these social movements are now the main obstacle to ownership of our natural resources by multinational corporations…. The increase in the number of detainees is also to be linked with the increasing social conflicts caused by the economic crisis looming on the horizon, reflecting the dependence of the Colombian economy to the North American market….”
The idea that Colombia must prepare for social and economic upheaval, and its results, is understandable.… Read More