More than 11,000 Colombian Prisoners in Hunger Strike-International Solidarity Needed!

by James Jordan

More than 11,000 Colombian prisoners in 21 penitentiaries are in their 13th day of a hunger strike and other forms of nonviolent resistance to demand better conditions in Colombian jails. Prisoners are demanding that the Colombian government:

  1. Declare a State of Emergency in the country’s corrections facilities and install a National Board of Consultation with inmate representation to develop a plan to address prison conditions;

  2. End overcrowding;

  3. End filthy and unhealthy prison conditions and maintain an adequate system of health care.

Prisoners and their supporters are also calling for an end to violations of Colombian sovereignty in the form of extraditions to foreign countries, especially the United States, of prisoners relevant to Colombia’s internal conflict.

Wednesday, August 15, is being observed in Bogotá as a day of solidarity with the striking prisoners. Events are being organized by Traspasa los Muros (Beyond the Walls) and other Colombian human rights groups. The day kicks off with a demonstration at the US Embassy after which busses will take participants across town to demonstrate in the Plaza de Bolivar, which is surrounded by the centers of Colombia’s national government.

Colombia’s prison system has been restructured with advice and funding from the US government as part of Plan Colombia. The Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System(PICPS), signed by the US and Colombia in 2000, has been a legacy of repression and mistreatment. Water and food are severely restricted and more often than not, not fit for human consumption. Overcrowding has skyrocketed and torture and violent attacks are common place, especially against political prisoners.

At La Tramacua prison in Valledupar open sewage runs by the kitchen, toilets rarely work, forcing prisoners to evacuate in buckets and plastic bags, food has been found at several times to contain fecal matter and access to clean running water is restricted to a few minutes every day. According to Tramacúa prisoner José Zamora, “The prisoners continue without water throughout the day. [Water] only arrives in the bathrooms 10 or 20 mintues a day.”

Construction at La Tramacúa was completed in November, 2000. It was the first prison built with US funding and oversight as a result of the PICPS. Although it is a modern facility, it has more in common with a medieval dungeon than a humane corrections facility. Sadly, the problems at La Tramacúa are not atypical and are replicated throughout the Colombian prison system.

Since the beginning of the PICPS, overcrowding in Colombian prisons has increased by more than 40% and is likely to get worse now that the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has passed. There has been a significant rise in the arrests of both common criminals and political prisoners. Those detained due to political motives are concentrated in certain prisons and are often subject to attack both by guards and paramilitary gangs. With an expected increase in the displacement of family farmers and job loss as a part of the FTA, arrests will likely go up even more.

According to a spokesman for the striking prisoners interviewed by the independent media site rpasur.com , the prisoners are mobilized for “…various reasons, but the most grave are the problems of unhealthy conditions and overcrowding in the jails. Colombia has capacity for 78,000 inmates. We find in Colombia more than 130,000 prisoners.”

Colombia currently has more than 10,000 political prisoners. Traspasa los Muros recognizes three kinds of political prisoners: 1) Prisoners of Conscience-people arrested for political activities and charged with such “crimes” as “Rebellion”; 2) Victims of Setups-persons arrested for political reasons based on false testimonies or other kinds of frame-ups; 3) Prisoners of War. An estimated 500 to 1,000 political prisoners are members of guerrilla forces. Prisoners of War are included as political prisoners since their situation is political in nature and would rightly be included as a major component of a negotiated solution to Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

The US government has extradited several guerrilla and paramilitary prisoners. Guerrilla Prisoners of War are specially mistreated in this country as well as in Colombia. For instance, Ricardo Palmera is a Commander of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Peoples’ Army) being held under severe restrictions at the Super-Max Prison in Florence, Colorado. These include long term solitary confinement that prevents him from receiving or sending mail and minimizes his interactions with other human beings, including eliminating inasmuch as possible direct contact even with prison guards.

The extradition of guerrilla Prisoners of War to the US directly impedes possibilities for peace negotiations. The extradition of paramilitary prisoners damages prospects for full fact finding investigations regarding paramilitary contacts with the government and transnational corporations. The inclusion of the striking prisoners’ demand to end these extraditions underscores the fact that in Colombia the situations of the Political Prisoners, as well as the conditions of all prisoners, are essential components of a peace process.

The Alliance for Global Justice expresses our solidarity with Colombia’s striking prisoners. We call on the Colombian government to take immediate action to improve prison conditions, especially to end overcrowding and to make sure that prisoners have access to potable water and clean food. We call on our own United States government to return extradited Prisoners of War as well as paramilitary prisoners to Colombia and to end any further extraditions of such prisoners. While these prisoners remain in US jails, we also call for an end to the solitary confinement of Ricardo Palmera and, indeed, for this practice to be stopped throughout the US prison system. Solitary confinement is torture!

We call on the US government to investigate the US-Colombia Program for the Improvement of Colombia’s Prison System and to use its influence to help bring about better conditions in Colombia’s penitentiaries. We especially call on the US government to end Plan Colombia, and, rather, support the Colombian people’s desires for a negotiated political solution to both the prison crisis and the ongoing armed and social conflict. The best way the US can support such negotiations is to neither interfere with nor sabotage them.

TAKE ACTION FOR COLOMBIA’S STRIKING PRISONERS!

The Alliance for Global Justice is asking for supporters to contact both their Congress person and the Colombian Embassy. Following is a sample script for emails or phone calls:

I am contacting you in solidarity with the more than 11,000 hunger strikers in 21 Colombian prisons who are demanding better conditions and a legitimate peace process. They are calling on the Colombian government to declare a State of Emergency in the country’s corrections facilities and install a National Board of Consultation with inmate representation to end the prisons’ humanitarian crisis.

I demand that the US government investigate the US funded and advised Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System (PICPS). US oversight has helped create these bad conditions.  Under the PICPS,  assaults and torture of prisoners have become commonplace, food is often spoiled, rotten and contaminated, access to clean water is limited to a few minutes per day and health care is routinely denied.

I also call on the US government to end its practice of extraditing Prisoners of War and paramilitary prisoners whose presence in Colombia is needed for the country’s peace process and fact finding efforts. Especially I call on the US government to end the extreme isolation of the Prisoner of War Ricardo Palmera while he is being held in the US, and to end the practice of solitary confinement in all US prisons.

To contact the Colombian Embassy:

embassyofcolombia@colombiaemb.org , or call 202-387-8338 

To contact your Congress Person:

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/