A Visit Inside Colombia’s Most Notorious Prison, La Tramacúa

By James Jordan, Alliance for Global Justice National Co-Coordinator

I called Raquel Mogollón just minutes after she had come from a rare visit inside the pavilions of Colombia’s most notorious prison, the High Security Penitentiary of Valledupar, commonly known as La Tramacúa. Mogollón is the Chair of the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ) Colombia Committee and a member of the International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (INSPP). La Tramacúa was the first prison built with US funding and designed and advised by the US Bureau of Prisons as part of the Program to Improve the Colombian Prison System. After its construction it was touted as a model of a “New Penitentiary Culture”. However, it has become infamous for its terrible conditions including:

  • Access to water an average of only ten minutes a day;
  • Water flow completely cut off for days at a time as a form of collective punishment;
  • Fecal contamination of food verified by the UN High Commission on Human Rights in Colombia, the Health Agency of the Department of César (where Valledupar is located), and various other government and human rights organizations;
  • Repeated incidents of torture, beatings and attacks against the prisoners especially aimed at political prisoners and prisoners of war who are concentrated in units where paramilitary gangs are in control.

Mogollón sounded like she was torn between grief and anger.

“It was unbelievable. I’m still trying to piece it together. I saw several prisoners who needed medical treatment from the recent assault: people with open cuts, deep bruises and rashes from pepper spray.”

She was talking about an unprecedented attack that had taken place between 8pm on June 11th and 4am on the 12th, carried out by the GRI (Grupo de Reacción Inmediata or Immediate Reaction Group ), specially trained and equipped guards from INPEC (the Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario, or Colombia’s Bureau of Prisons). At least four inmates were seen being carried out unconscious with significant wounds. Later it was learned that five prisoners were in hospitals, but that more than 30 inmates were in serious need of medical attention. The attack was carried out against striking prisoners who were calling for closure of La Tramacúa and transfers to prisons near their families and, until that happens, better conditions. On May 19th, the Mayor of Valledupar and the Regional Public Defender both visited the prison and were so disturbed by their findings that they also joined the prisoners in calling for the penitentiary to be closed.

According to witnesses, the June 11th and 12th assault was carried out on orders from the Minister of the Interior and Justice, which has charge over Colombia’s prisons. Visiting the prison on June 13th, Mogollón said, “Some of the prisoners still had pepper spray on their shirts and in their hair, although it had been two days since the attack. There was no extra water to clean with. They just had to be there with it. They said that during the attack, there were 50 or 60 shots fired in each Tower [or unit]….They were attacked with pepper spray, percussion grenades, clubs and other weapons, and they were beaten and kicked. The prisoners kept talking about a powder that was used–these shells with a powder inside that would make them cough and choke. But no one knew what the substance was.”

Many of the striking prisoners had fashioned makeshift harnesses and hammocks and had been suspended, hanging from balconies up to five floors high, as a form of protest. One prisoner, Wilson Rodriguez, told Mogollón that, “They cut us all down because they didn’t want you to see us.” He and the other prisoners had been hanging from the balconies for 33 days. “There wasn’t much more we could do. It was one of the only ways we could protest.” Prisoners also refused to wear uniforms, take part in head counts or do basic chores.

LEADING UP TO THE ASSAULT OF JUNE 11th AND 12th

The strike had been a direct result of prison authorities cutting off water access for over three days, starting on the 29th of April. Prisoners had to survive on the water they had already gathered. The strike began with one man, Hernan Rodriguez Diaz, a Prisoner of War, who sewed his own lips shut and began a hunger strike on May 2nd that lasted for 24 days until May 26th. He was also demanding the return of his personal effects, including papers related to his court case, medical attention for ailments from eating contaminated food, and the right to be transferred to a facility near his wife and five children, whom he had not seen for over a year since he had been moved to La Tramacúa. After Rodriguez suffered beatings and torture from guards trying to force him to end the fast, as many as 60 prisoners began a prison wide strike on May 14th using peaceful forms of protest.

It seemed that some progress was being made toward resolving the bad conditions when, on May 16th, the prison’s director convened a “table of negotiations” with the human rights representatives from each tower. (In Colombia, each unit elects a human rights representative from among the prisoners themselves.) The prisoners formed a Crisis Committee and decided they would not lift the strike until a Commission of Negotiation had been convened that included national government and human rights representatives with international observers and guarantees. The prisoners called on Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity) and the Colombian Senate’s Commission on Peace and Humanitarian Accord to act as observers during negotiations. La Tramacúa’s Director agreed to guarantee spaces for internal meetings in each tower.

However, in June, the winds shifted and the progress that had been made in starting talks began to unravel. In Bogotá, preparations were underway for a June 4th and 5th National Encounter for the Freedom of the Political Prisoners, which would bring together both Colombian and International solidarity activists. AFGJ and the National Lawyers Guild had sent a delegation to Colombia that would attend the event and I would present a statement on behalf of AFGJ and the INSPP.

On a positive note, the Colombian Supreme Court had recently ruled that evidence found in computers alleged to belong to the late Raul Reyes, a Commander and negotiator for the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), was not admissible. The files contained in the computers were easily manipulated. The computers had been outside the chain of custody for significant periods and indications of tampering had been discovered. This ruling had lead to an order for at least one political prisoner, the scholar Miguel Angel Beltran, to be released and several other prominent political prisoners had also been freed during the preceding weeks and days.

However, shortly before the event, INPEC sent out a widely distributed press statement that accused prisoners of planning acts of sabotage and violence concurrent with the Encounter. In reality, the political prisoners were organizing cultural events to peacefully commemorate the occasion. This was followed by the sudden, arbitrary and massive transfers of political prisoners at La Tramacúa and Combita, in the Department of Boyacá, as well as the transfer of political prisoner Liliany Obando to a higher security unit within her institution. Some of these transfers were accompanied by acts of violence. Furthermore, when our delegation tried to visit the La Picota High Security Penitentiary in Bogotá, which had also received US advice and support, we were turned away and told it was “for your own security”. We were the second international human rights delegation to be refused entry into Colombian prisons since February, 2010, when a delegation from Asturias, in Spain, was denied entry into La Tramacúa.

While AFGJ and the INSPP have advocated for the closure of La Tramacúa and the transfer of prisoners to institutions nearer to their families, these transfers were highly suspect. The entire Crisis Committee coordinating the prison strike was suddenly transferred. During a visit of AFGJ and NLG delegates in the offices of INPEC, we raised this issue and said that it looked suspiciously like an attempt to thwart the process of negotiations. The officials with whom we met told us that the prisoners’ human rights representatives had not been transferred, and that they would continue the negotiations.

However, as we left the office, while riding back to our hotel, one of our partners from Lazos de Dignidad received a phone call informing her that even as we met with the INPEC officials, every one of the human rights representatives had also been moved to other prisons. We have not yet received clarification as to whether or not the officials we were meeting with knew of this development.

Through talks with INPEC officials and the intervention of Colombian Senator Gloria Inez Ramirez and Rep. Ivan Cepeda, we were able to achieve one small but significant victory–that a delegation would be permitted to enter La Tramacúa on June 13th, including Raquel Mogollón of AFGJ and the INSPP, as well as Rep. Cepeda, members of Lazos de Dignidad, and several other international observers. But before the delegation entered, the brutal attack of June 11th and 12th occurred, attacks that can only be viewed as further efforts to hamper negotiations and to “clean up” the jails and break the strike before the delegation arrived. One prisoner told Mogollón that, “In 17 years, I’d never seen an assault like this one.”

THE ATTACK–TESTIMONIES FROM THE INSIDE

The experience of Mogollón and other delegates in the prison, along with the testimonies of inmates, confirmed some of the worst concerns about human rights abuses and the jail’s terrible conditions, despite the “clean up” effort. There were also instances that seemed directed at intimidating prisoners in their testimonies. For instance, Mogollón reported that, “The internal committee that organized the testimonies had to ask three or four times for the guards to leave. These guards were the same ones who had attacked the prisoners just the other night…There were INPEC officials in and out of uniform who showed up about half way through the panels. They were filming in the hallways of the patios when we’d go in.”

When asked specifically about the assault of June 11th and 12th, Mogollón reported that “The GRI took these little nasty mats they had, about two inches thick, and put them on the floors. When they would start to cut down prisoners from their harnesses and hammocks, they would hope they hit the mats. Some did, some didn’t. One prisoner after another reported they counted as many as 50 to 60 times that projectiles were fired.”

“Prisoner Wilson Rodriguez said that he had been thrown from the fourth floor. He was one of five prisoners carried unconscious from the prison and hospitalized. He was later locked away and given access to water only five minutes each day. Osvaldo Guzman Toro, had been thrown three floors. Rodriguez added, ‘They put out these little mattresses, pretending to use them for safety, but some of the people were being thrown or cut down from the fifth floor.’”

Mogollón described the GRI, the guards who undertook the attacks, saying that they “…look like SWAT teams, with shields, helmets and all. Several of the prisoners said they pleaded with the GRI not to attack, saying that the GRI shouldn’t be there, that the strike was peaceful. But the GRI responded that they were following orders, that they couldn’t back down. Specifically, the inmates said the GRI told them that they had been ‘ordered by the Minister and the General.’” The Minister of the Interior and Justice, German Vargas Lleras, is the cabinet official who has oversight of INPEC. The Director General of INPEC is Brigadier General Gustavo Adolfo Ricaurte Tapia. Mogollón added that, “The prisoners said that the Minister had issued an order for the guards to clean things up. Then they say everything changed. The bags of human waste were taken out. [Note: Prisoners must resort to defecating in plastic bags and buckets because of the unsanitary and non-working toilet facilities.] Then came the attack against the strikers. But even with the cleaning, there was mold all around and cracked cement.”

Mogollón reported that, “At least three inmates told me that guards stripped them naked and shot tear gas cans at their genitals. They said that during the attacks the guards were using ‘pimienta, pata y palos’, or, ‘peppers, kicks and batons’. Prisoners reported that some of the canisters they were shooting were the size of their forearms–about a foot long.”

A WITNESS TO SEVERE WATER SHORTAGE AND FOOD CONTAMINATION

When asked about what she witnessed in terms of the water supply and the kitchen facilities in the prison, as well as other general conditions, Mogollón responded that, “The first hour we were there, government and INPEC officials and contractors were talking about who is responsible for the water….I heard from some of the prisoners that there was no problem getting water to the building, that the problem was right below, because the pipes were angled wrong. Basically, the idea from the state is that INPEC needs to take care of it. They talked about pumping water with turbines.”

In a statement from Lazos de Dignidad, following the delegation’s visit, they reported that, “Before entering the penitentiary, we heard Director Leopoldo López Pinzon, who maintained the non-existence of the problems in said place, signifying that the supply of water to the prisoners during five minutes a day was not an irregularity and, additionally, that it was a matter of responsibility of the Government of César, the Mayor’s office and EMDUPAR, the Administration of Public Services of Valledupar. Equally, he expressed that the operation executed by the GRI under his direction during the weekend had been normal, in which, according to him, they used six canisters of tear gas. Subsequently, the Government of César expressed that the supply of water to the penitentiary was not a matter of their responsibility, but only the execution of works of adaptation of the piping. For their part, the Mayor and EMDUPAR bristled that they were not included in this meeting, despite that they had been previously invited.”

Mogollón explained further that, “It’s important to understand that this is an area of rivers, ranches and farms. But about a mile up, where the water comes down from, all the piping is old….Right now the inmates say they’re getting access to water about ten minutes a day. However, in the cells there is water…disgusting, dirty water on the floors.” (A common problem reported by several delegations and visitors to Tramacúa over the past eleven years of its existence has been that sewage frequently backs up and pools on the jail’s floors.)

Mogollón added that, “The prison was absolutely, suffocatingly hot with just a few water pipes.”

“What was really bad–I got a look at the water bottles. They were all full of mold. They aren’t able to clean their water jugs. There’s just not enough water available.”

“At one point, you could hear the water coming through the pipes. All the men started running….”

“The whole place smelled. They said it was cleaned up for us. Mostly, it smelled like urine. They said the bags of feces had been gotten rid of.”

Regarding the kitchen facilities, Mogollón reported that, “The kitchen area was totally dark. They said they’d cleaned that up, too, but it wasn’t that clean. There were three fans and ten giant cauldrons where they were cooking some soup or stew. In the other room where they prepared the food, it was full of flies. There was grease all over the floor. It didn’t smell very good. I saw vegetables and fruit that were spoiled in the preparation area, with flies all around them.”

The issue of water supply and unclean, spoiled food has been an ongoing issue for the prisoners of La Tramacúa. In August and September of 2010, another inmate, Felix Roberto Sanabria, engaged in a hunger strike that lasted well over a month. In a letter of support for that hunger strike, the Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War of Tower Five at La Tramacúa wrote that:

“The food service system is one of total indignity, as is publicly known in this graveyard of liberties called ‘Tramacúa’, since it is demanded and oriented by the US Federal Bureau of Prisons…. Only the basic minimum is permitted in order to survive and not die from physical hunger because, according to them, here there are only terrorists and the anti-social…For this they add the contamination of foods with fecal material, as was proven with laboratory studies recently realized by the Health Ministry of Valledupar…Also, it is a constant that the food supplies may be in a state of decomposition—meat with worms, poorly cooked, raw or rotten. And on the tablecloth can be seen to swim larva and worms that are submerged in the receptacles the prisoner must use to drink and eat for physical hunger and thirst…For such reasons, 70% of the population remains sick, with strong illnesses of the stomach-constant diarrhea and vomiting, gastric ulcers, headaches and all kinds of gastrointestinal diseases…”

“When they punish us up to a week without water, the chaos is total, since there are three toilets for 170 prisoners that in only a short while remain absolutely full of fecal material, obliging us to have to do our physical necessities in the drains of the patio, in the open air and in view of the population because in a site so narrow, there is nowhere and no way to avoid it…”

“In the Winter, the patios are overflowed because the sewage dos not have the gradient to drain. They remain flooded with a decomposed mud of fecal material that covers various centimeters of thickness. This must be emptied out with jars and with no water to clean anything, having to endure such nauseating odors. There is no attempt to solve the problem. This isn’t torture?…”

THE GREATEST TRAGEDY OF ALL: ISOLATION FROM LOVED ONES

However, for Mogollón, the most tragic aspect of life she heard about in La Tramacúa was the isolation from family and friends and all manner of social support and meaningful human ties beyond the walls of the cells.”

“The worst thing, the worst kind of torture, wasn’t any kind of violence or anything like that. It seems little, but so many people came up to me and told me about not being able to see their families, being completely shut off. When we walked between the Towers, the prisoners were all bunched up around the gates. People would be calling to me, ‘Doctora! Doctora! Madre! Madre!’ They would want me to write their names down.”

“One man said, ‘I’ve been here eight years! I can’t see my daughter!’”

“Another said, ‘I’ve been here twelve years and I haven’t seen my mother the whole time!’”

“It was one plea after another like that, people who hadn’t seen their families for years. When I asked why, one man responded, ‘We’re poor. Our families can’t afford to make the long trips. And when we think of them coming in here, how it smells like feces, it’s so humiliating, so disgusting. It is so hard to think of them seeing us like this.’”

Mogollón again talked about the pleas she would hear as she walked through the institution’s halls.

“We would have to walk through these passageways that crisscrossed among the different units. All the prisoners would be crammed up at the gates and windows, calling to me, “Doctora! Doctora!’ or ‘Madre! Madre!’. I would put my hand up just to acknowledge them. They would give me papers with their names on them. One inmate called to me, ‘Please, please, Madre! I’ve been here six years and I have two hernias. I can’t get treatment, I can’t get medicine!’”

“Another told me, ‘Look, you’ve got to listen! There is no re-socialization here! There’s no such thing!’”

““Finally, at one point I stopped in one of the passageways and spoke back to them. I said, ‘Look, I wish I could help each one of you, but I can’t! I can’t because this place is modeled on a US system. This model is based on punishment and the people who designed this system don’t care about re-socialization. They don’t care what happens to you! All I can do is to go back and do what I can to change this whole system and draw attention to what you are suffering.”

“All of a sudden, they started clapping, yelling, ‘Go on!’ and ‘You speak the truth!’”

A SAD TRUTH

A sad truth, indeed–that this most notorious and inhumane of Colombian prisons was built with US funding and oversight and that these prisons are being used to control common criminals beset by extreme poverty and the abandonment of the state–and also used to concentrate political prisoners, turning the prison system into a theater of war and a weapon of intimidation to crush dissent.

According to INPEC, they have some 113,000 inmates under their watch. Of these, more than 7,500 are political prisoners. Most the political prisoners are nonviolent Prisoners of Conscience and Judicial Frame-ups,–peasant farmers, union members, students and members of the political opposition. A minority are Prisoners of War.

While Colombian and US politicians repeat ad nauseum their assertions of improved human rights in Colombia, prisons such as La Tramacúa are a glaring testament that these assertions have no basis in reality. The fact is that there can be no real improvement in human rights nor can peace be achieved along this path of more war, repression and incarceration.

The Alliance for Global Justice and the International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners are insistent that dialog and a humanitarian accord are the tools needed to bring a just peace to Colombia. A humanitarian exchange of Prisoners of War, freedom for all Prisoners of Conscience and Judicial Frame-ups and the closing of such torturous institutions as La Tramacúa–these are three good ways to begin a legitimate peace process and a new chapter in a new Colombia.