by James Patrick Jordan
Colombian Armed Forces attacked prisoners on Sunday who were striking against filthy conditions and lack of protections against the COVID-19 coronavirus. Colombian agents killed at least 23 persons and wounded more than 90 at La Modelo prison in the capital city of Bogotá. This attack takes place in the context of a series of protests in 13 different Colombian prisons in addition to La Modelo. The government has not released details about what transpired at other locations, including whether there were casualties. At La Modelo, prison officials, police, and military troops assaulted inmates with live ammunition, claiming the attack was necessary to prevent a mass escape. However, prisoners insist that the purpose of their protests was to demand action to stop the spread of coronavirus and to improve health and sanitation.
La Modelo has a rate of overcrowding of over 50%, with prisoners often having to sleep in shifts because of lack of space. It is frequently listed as one of the world’s worst and most dangerous prisons. In 2016, the remains of more than 100 dismembered prisoners and visitors were discovered in the jail’s drain pipes. The massacre at La Modelo facility happened just days before the 20th anniversary of an accord between the U.S. government and Colombia to reform and improve Colombia’s prison system. After 20 years, rather than improvements, overcrowding of jails has reached the highest levels in Colombia’s history, penitentiaries have been militarized, and human rights abuses are endemic, occurring daily. The accords with Colombia were the first in an effort by the U.S. government to export mass incarceration across the global South, known as “prison imperialism”.
So far, Colombia’s health ministry reports 231 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country, with two deaths registered. This number is likely only the tip of the iceberg, given the widespread scarcity of health clinics or testing. INPEC, Colombia’s Bureau of Prisons, has minimized and even denied the presence of the virus in the prisons. As recently as March 17, INPEC publicly claimed that there were no coronavirus infections in the penal system. Only one day later, the CSPP (Committee in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners) reported 93 confirmed cases.
The Colombian government and corporate media described the attacks as efforts to contain a chaotic outbreak of riots that, in the worlds of Justice Minister Margarita Cabellos, masked a “plan to escape”. However, those reports were rapidly contradicted by other sources within the government, various nongovernmental organizations, as well as by prisoners. The People’s Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos), one of the largest popular organizations in the country said that the casualties at La Modelo were results of indiscriminate fire on the part of Colombia’s Armed Forces. Colombian ombudsman Rafael Navarro joined with several Colombian senators who added their voices to the demands of the prisoners to call on President Iván Duque to declare a state of emergency in the prison system and release elderly prisoners as well as all imprisoned for minor, nonviolent crimes, and those with sentences of under eight years.
The attacks on the prisons happened after a national cacerolazo took place on March 18, 2020. The cacerolazo is a form of protest popular in Latin America that can take place even when public gatherings are not permitted. People simply go outside on their porches, in their yards, or just open their windows, to beat on pots and pans in resistance to unpopular policies. Colombian people have engaged in multiple national strikes since November 21, 2019 against austerity and for peace, justice, and human and workers rights. A major mobilization was called for March 25 that was cancelled because of measures against the coronavirus implemented by the Duque administration. However, while the country went into lock down to prevent the disease’s spread, nothing was implemented to help the informal economy employing most workers, nor to see to the needs of the most vulnerable, including the large population of the displaced and the homeless, prisoners, or those in dire need of health care in a country notorious for its lack thereof. On March 20, a national cacerolazo was organized throughout the prison system to focus specifically on the lack of measures to address the crisis in the country’s jails.
According to a statement released by the human and prisoner rights organization Fundación Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity Foundation),
“The inmate population, no stranger to this situation [the COVID 19 pandemic], raised its voice in protest before the possible propagation of the virus and the risk of becoming contagious due to the bad conditions of health and overcrowding in which the different prisons of the country find themselves, this last [overcrowding] at 53.58%, according to the most recent statistics of the national [prisoner] census by INPEC….
Before this abandonment, the demands manifested by the inmate population consisting of the declaration of a penal emergency, freedom or house arrest for elders and persons detained for minor crimes, are at the same time the proposals by the inmate population for an end to prison overcrowding and for better health and nutritional conditions.
It must be emphasized that even following the signing of the Peace Accord between the Colombian State and the ex-guerrillas of the FARC-EP [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army], in these center there are still prisoners from this organization waiting for the Special Jurisdiction for the Peace to resolve their situations of liberty, although they have already fulfilled all the demanded requirement by the law embraced in the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and No Repetition.
We lament that the period of protest that was seeking to improve conditions of incarceration for thousands of citizens, has been brutally repressed by the Colombian State, leaving as a result, the loss of…23 lives and, worse yet, that the National Government, headed by the Minister of Justice, Margarita Cabello, and the Director of
INPEC, General Norberto Mujica, minimize and justify this massacre alleging a presumed escape attempt, and shamelessly denying the absence of health guarantees in the prisons, a situation that the Constitutional Court, repeatedly since the year 1998, has declared as an unconstitutional situation, that is to say, a systematic violation of human rights in the prisons.”
How bad are the conditions in Colombian prisons? Besides the already mentioned overcrowding and abuses, the reality of Colombian prisoners is that they live in filthy and neglectful spaces made worse by regular maltreatment. The neglect of health care, including the most serious conditions, is a constant feature of life for the incarcerated. In several of the prisons, including the Acacias and Tramacúa penitentiaries, access to fresh water is limited to an average 15 minutes per day. The Alliance for Global Justice, partnering with Lazos de Dignidad, has followed prison conditions in Colombia since 2008, and confirms that there have been multiple cases of people denied the most basic medical attention, including for conditions ranging from gunshots to cancer, and many have died from that neglect. Fecal contamination, putrefaction, and even maggots have been found in prison meals, and toilets and showers frequently do not work. Given the systemic overcrowding, neglect of health care, poor nutritional standards, and unavailability of water, the ideas of social distancing or good hygiene to combat COVID-19 are simply not possible. Protesting prisoners also note that prison personnel are not maintaining the kinds of practices and isolation to avoid bringing in contagions from the outside. In short, Colombian prisons are breeding grounds for infection.
Meanwhile, the Colombian government consistently refuses to take any kind of adequate actions to end these conditions. Colombian courts at the highest levels have declared the lack of health care to be unconstitutional and have even demanded that some prisons be closed, such as the infamous La Tramacúa, the first prison constructed with U.S. funding and by U.S. designs. But these rulings have been consistently ignored. With regards to the 2016 Peace Accord, more than 300 political prisoners and prisoners of war who should have been released, are still being held over three years later.
Most prisoners in Colombia and the world do not stay in prison forever. And while they remain in prison, they are in contact with a steady stream of personnel entering and exiting the jails. Basic humanitarian concern and decency should be reason enough to take the necessary measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in Colombian jails. But even if those reasons are rejected, the fact is that an unchecked spread of coronavirus among the incarcerated cannot be contained behind bars. If nothing is done, it will escape. And that is an escape that no amount of state sponsored brutality and extrajudicial killings can prevent. It can only be prevented by doing the right thing—by justice.