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“La Tramacúa”: Colombia’s Abu Ghraib

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.… Read More

LASC5: Conference to Build a Stronger Movement to End US Militarism and the Militarization of Latin America

Militarism and the Militarization of Latin America

LASC5: Education and Strategy Conference to Build a Stronger Movement to End US Militarism and the Militarization of Latin America
Washington, DC – April 8-10, 2011
Pre-Register Now

Sponsored by: Latin America Solidarity Coalition in Conjunction with School of the Americas Watch Days of Action (April 4-11, 2011)
Register now to attend an informative and exciting conference to build a larger movement to end US militarism and the militarization of US relations with Latin America and the world. Join Latin America solidarity activists, people of faith, academics, youth and students, anti-war and immigration activists, labor, women, and all sectors which are working to build a better world. The United States is at a crossroads. Down one road lies permanent war, a stagnant economy and loss of liberty. Down the other lies a new world of cooperation, prosperity and freedom. This conference is all about how we can work together to travel on the road to a new and better world.

Please join us for a weekend of plenaries and workshops to educate and inspire each other and to plan actions, strategies, and organizing tools to build a greater movement to overcome US militarism. Participate in SOA Watch’s Days of Action including lobbying and direct action to shut down the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, better known as the School of the Americas. Agitate for closing US military bases in Latin America and for an end to US militarization throughout the Americas and the world. Click HERE to register.

We recognize that US militarism affects both the entire world and everything about our daily lives. If you are working to end US wars, morally stand in favor of peace, are in solidarity with the oppressed,

are working to end racism and the criminalization of immigrants, stand solidly in favor of our First Amendment freedoms, or are working to create new economic models that defend the interests of workers and farmers over those of corporations and bankers – then you should attend this conference to build a strong and unified movement against US militarism.

Some topics covered by this conference will include: US military bases, military spending, immigration and border militarization, coups, war profiteers, privatization of war, closing the School of the Americas, foreign

military and police aid, growing our skills in media, research, and other organizing, counter recruitment and support for active duty resisters, US relations with Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Honduras, etc., organizing within sectors to resist militarism, cross movement organizing, domestic costs of militarism, direct action, and much more.

Register HERE and visit the LASC web page at www.lasolidarity.org frequently to see updates on workshops, plenary speakers, direct actions and other preparatory information. Visit the SOA Watch Days of Action web page for details on actions scheduled from April 4-11, 2011. We recommend that you plan your trip to participate in SOA Watch’s activities before and after the conference.… Read More

The FBI’s ‘War on Dissent’

Posted: October 1, 2010 01:27 PM

FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley points out that last week’s raids on anti-war and solidarity activists in Chicago and Minneapolis came just days after a “scathing review” by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which slammed the agency’s post 9/11 “terrorism investigations” of peace and social justice groups.

The FBI is conducting a “war on dissent, rather than terrorism,” she writes.

The IG report apparently “gave no pause to the FBI,” which is “continuing to do more of the same,” Rowley writes.

The FBI’s “anti-terrorist” activities highlighted by the report (which covers 2002 to 2006) included investigations of pacifist groups such as Catholic Workers, Quakers and the Thomas Merton Center of Pittsburgh. Environmental and animal rights groups were put on terrorist watch lists.

The report reveals “shameful red-baiting at its worst,” editorialized the Boston Globe, which argued that the net effect of the FBI’s activities was to stifle dissent.

It’s “a reminder of how easily civil liberties can be cast aside during suspicious frenzies,” wrote the New York Times in its editorial column, noting cases in the report where the FBI “trumped up routine civil disobedience violations” as “potential terrorism.”

And with federal officials commenting on the newest raids repeatedly referring to an “ongoing criminal case” and “a law enforcement investigation,” it’s worth noting that the IG report revealed that FBI Director Robert Mueller gave false information to Congress when he testified that surveillance of the Merton Center was “an outgrowth of an FBI investigation.”

Instead, as the Globe noted, it was a “make-work assignment” on a “slow day.”

The raids are being taken as a sign that the FBI is eager to exploit the huge opening afforded by a Supreme Court decision in June that found that a law banning “material support” for designated terrorist organizations could legally prohibit speech and advocacy – even advocacy in support of human rights and international law.

The court overruled repeated findings by lower courts that the law’s provisions restricting speech are unconstitutional.

“For the first time ever, the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment permits the criminalization of pure speech advocating lawful, nonviolent activity,” wrote David Cole, Georgetown professor and attorney for the Humanitarian Law Project in the case.

He points out that by advising Hezbollah and other groups on election procedure, as he did in Lebanon last year, former President Jimmy Carter arguably committed a crime punishable by 15 years in prison, under the Supreme Court ruling. (Indeed, Carter spoke out against the ruling.)

Under the new “material support” interpretation, anti-apartheid and solidarity activists in the 1980s could have been subject to harassment and prosecution, as National Lawyers Guild ‘s Bruce Nestor points out. (NLG has opened a hotline and issued a know-your-rights guide for activists harassed by the FBI.)

Back then, U.S. activists communicated and worked with the African National Congress and the FMLN of El Salvador, both considered terrorist groups by the State Department — while the U.S. government actively or tacitly backed large-scale, brutal repression by the existing governments of South Africa and El Salvador. Today, with repressive apparatuses dismantled, both the ANC and the FMLN are governing their nations through fair and free elections.

In 1991 a federal judge ruled that multiple FBI investigations of the Chicago chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, based on unsubstantiated charges of “terrorist” activities, violated the 1981 consent decree in the Chicago Red Squad case. That decree barred investigations of activities protected by the First Amendment. (It was vacated last year.)

If the FBI is serious about investigating material support for terrorism – and not cracking down on domestic dissent – they could raid the corporate offices of Coca-Cola. Several union leaders have been killed and hundreds of union members at Coke bottling plants in Colombia have been detained and tortured by paramilitaries working with plant management, according to the labor-backed Campaign to Stop Killer Coke.

Such a focus on real material support for terrorism by the FBI is not likely, alas, since earlier last month the State Department certified Colombia is “making progress” on human rights (“though there continues to be a need for improvement,” the department reported to Congress, mentioning the small problem of impunity for human rights violations) — and thus worthy of $30 million in military aid for fiscal year 2011.

This despite a recent report from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the U.S. Office on Columbia showing that Colombian army units receiving U.S. aid “allegedly kill more civilians and frame the deaths as combat kills,” as Global Post reports. This gets them “job perks and promotions.”

Extrajudicial killings of civilians surged significantly in regions that received the largest increases in U.S. aid, the human rights groups found.

Talk about material support for terrorism. That’s our tax dollars at work, friends.

From the Palmer Raids through McCarthyism and COINTELPRO and on to today, the FBI has policed and suppressed political dissent. The September 24 raids are just the opening chapter in the latest episode.

A dozen or so activists have been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury in Chicago on October 5. There, as Nestor points out, they’ll “have to answer questions: Who do you know? Who do you talk to? What do you think? And if you don’t answer them you can sit in jail for 4 or 6 or 8 or 18 months until the grand jury term ends.”

It’s “an attempt by the federal government to criminalize anti-war organizing,” writes Ron Jacobs at Counterpunch. The Grand Jury Resistance Project has called on the government “to end the use of grand juries as a political tool to suppress political dissent.”

It’s “a declaration of war on the activist left, in which grand juries are deployed as omnibus weapons of political persecution under an infinitely expandable anti-terrorism rationale,” writes Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report. “The constitutional lawyer in the White House has tossed the founding document into the National Security State shredder.”

The newly-formed Chicago Committee Against Political Repression has called a rally and vigil at the Federal Building, 230 S. Dearborn, for October 5 from 8:30 to 3:30 p.m. The national Committee to Stop FBI Repression says there will be rallies that day in dozens of cities.… Read More

Indigenous resistance, from Colombia to Palestine

Anna Baltzer writing from Lopez, Colombia, Live from Palestine, 16 September 2010

 

A teenager sits above the Toez Indigenous Reserve at dusk. Her community has been repeatedly threatened with displacement by the Colombian government.

“They only see our water, our land, our trees. They don’t care about us. They want the land — without the people on it.”

These words are not of a Palestinian farmer but of Justo Conda, governor of Lopez Adentro Indigenous Reserve in southwestern Colombia, whose community was repeatedly threatened with displacement under former president Alvaro Uribe Velez. Uribe, recently appointed by the United Nations to investigate Israel’s fatal attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, has a notoriously horrific track record on human rights. Less explored are the clear parallels between his government’s mistreatment of indigenous peoples of Colombia and Israel’s abuses of the indigenous people of Palestine.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced people in the world, numbering as many as 4.9 million. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement more than 286,000 Colombians were uprooted from their land in 2009 alone. Approximately ten percent of the Colombian population has suffered forced displacement, many of them indigenous communities, afro-Colombian descendants of former slaves, and campesinos (farmers).

Like Israel, Colombia is the largest recipient of US military aid in its hemisphere. Six billion US tax-dollars over the past ten years have placed Colombia third in the world for US military assistance, after Israel and Egypt. Armed with US weapons and political backing, Uribe’s government and other armed actors have forced out millions through extrajudicial assassinations and terror tactics, clearing the way for the exploitation of natural resources by the government and multinational companies. Always in the name of security and the “War on Terror,” Colombian soldiers have burned villages, ransacked homes and destroyed the livelihoods of communities who have taken the radical decision of staying on their own land.

For many indigenous communities, this is not the first time they’ve been uprooted. With the Spanish invasion five hundred years ago and the founding of Colombia three hundred years later, indigenous peoples have been repeatedly forced to flee their fertile valleys rich with water and minerals, moving further and further into the Andes mountain ranges where the climate is harsher and the land less arable. Now the government wants to take even that land, leaving the communities trapped — community members say if they head higher into the mountains they may be threatened by guerillas who are fighting to maintain control of those areas, while going down into the valleys they will face aggression from paramilitaries, corporations and the army.

There is something eerily familiar about this violent and calculated expulsion and it is no surprise that Israel has now become Colombia’s number one supplier of weapons, advisor on military organization and intelligence-gathering and model for “fighting terror” (“Report: Israelis fighting guerillas in Colombia,” Ynet, 10 August 2007, as cited in “Uribe’s appointment to flotilla probe guarantees it’s failure,” Jose Antonio Gutierrez and David Landy, The Electronic Intifada, 6 August 2010). But like the Palestinians, the people of Colombia are not prepared to abandon their homes and livelihoods without a struggle. Almost twenty years ago, up against a military armed to the teeth, the indigenous communities of southwestern Colombia developed their own form of protection: La Guarda Indigena (The Indigenous Guard).

 

Justo Conda, governor of the Lopez Adentro Indigenous Reserve, standing in front of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca flag with the ancestral staff that identifies him as a member of the indigenous guard.

Standing before the flag of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca in the indigenous reserve of Lopez, Governor Conda explained:

“The Colombian government does not represent us, so we have constructed our own system of security. In each indigenous community, individuals are selected to serve for one year defending our land. Each indigenous guard receives a staff, passed down by its previous user, which represents the authority and responsibility of the position. Guards carry their ancestral staffs everywhere they go. It is received voluntarily; nobody is paid to defend their people. And although everyone in our communities would fight for our freedom, the staffs indicate those of us who have been physically and psychologically prepared during the year to defend our people and our land.”

Governor Conda added:

“In the face of a highly-militarized state that consistently denies us our basic rights, the indigenous guard is the only defense we can exercise. We have declared ourselves neutral, allied with neither the guerillas nor the army. We are offering a peaceful solution based on an end to colonization and respect for life and culture. We have no weapons or guns. We don’t need weapons or guns to exercise control. Our guards stand outside our gates, armed only with their colorful staff — a symbol of our strength and our values. And although we have received many threats, many authorities have also come to respect the indigenous guard.”

Conda explained that at the end of each guard’s term, he or she chooses a successor and the authority and responsibility rotates. Next to Conda, the current community guards stood up one by one, a diverse group of men and women; young and old; a pregnant woman; a village elder. They held the staffs, each meant to reach as high as its carrier’s heart.

Colombia’s indigenous communities have a long history of popular resistance. In the 1920s, tribes collectively boycotted taxes imposed by the government on indigenous people to live and work on their own land. Since then, councils have been formed to decide how to recuperate territory and resist expulsion. Although their presence preceded European colonization, indigenous Colombians are often treated as foreigners and invaders.

The response to organized indigenous resistance to displacement has been brutal. Last year alone, four members of the small Lopez Adentro community alone were assassinated (“The Struggle for Survival and Dignity: Human Rights Abuses Against Indigenous Peoples in Colombia,” Amnesty International, 23 January 2010 [PDF]). According to human rights advocate Felix Posada, 1,400 indigenous persons were assassinated during Uribe’s eight-year tenure, representing one percent of Colombia’s total indigenous population. Colombia has the highest rate of indigenous killings in Latin America, numbering 114 last year, reported Posada behind bulletproof doors in his office in downtown Bogota.

Right-wing paramilitary groups are suspected in many of the incidents, despite the Uribe administration’s claim of their demobilization in 2006 (“Colombian Paramilitaries’ Successors Called a Threat,” Simon Romero, The New York Times, 3 February 2010). The “disarmament” was widely seen as a publicity stunt in which individuals dressed up as militants handed over their guns in photo-ops in exchange for a handsome reward. Countless cases have confirmed collaboration between the Colombian army and the paramilitaries (renamed “organized delinquents” these days), the latter often doing the dirty work in exchange for power and immunity.

 

A mother at the Lopez Adentro Indigenous Reserve.

In October of 2008, following direct action by the Indigenous and Popular Minga (Community Mobilization) of La Maria in Piendamo, soldiers entered the municipality and vandalized cars, forced inhabitants out of their homes with tear gas, stripped men in front of their neighbors and set fire to residents’ huts, beds, bicycles and even children’s dolls (Video: “La Maria Piendamo,” 22 October 2008). A mass march from La Maria was met with soldiers and helicopters, leading to a stand-off of stones, sling-shots and ancestral staffs versus the army’s tear gas and live ammunition (Video: “Minga de la Maria Piendamo,” 22 October 2008).… Read More