Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie

Colombia's Prisons - Bastions of Inequality and Injustice

7 February 2012
Miguel Angel Beltran

The media announced a new corruption scandal in the “Picota” National Prison last week, this time due to the Nule businessmen (brothers Miguel, Manuel and Guido), being sentenced for the so-called "Contracting Carousel in Bogota" to paltry sentences of 7 years (and in the case of their business partner Mauricio Galofre, to only 6 years 8 months), for the crime of embezzlement by irregular management and for the appropriation of about 70 billion Colombian pesos as an advance on three contracts given by the IDU (Urban Development Institute).


According to information provided by the media, a routine search by National Penitentiary Institute (INPEC) prison guards, revealed that the Nule businessmen had an exclusive place of imprisonment with mobile phones, computers, ipods, a Playstation and five hundred thousand Colombian pesos in cash. All of these items are prohibited by prison regulations. Few have asked themselves how it is these artifacts got there in a high security prison where inmates' visitors are searched to levels that violate human dignity.


As usual in these cases, there is a journalistic scandal that, at most, lasts a day or two. In the best cases, the prison director is removed before being relocated to another prison, as happened a year ago with the then Director [of La Picota] Imelda Lopez, with whose consent the parapolitical prisoners held numerous parties, accompanied by well known musical bands. Today Mrs. Lopez serves as Director of the prison in Valledupar (known as the "Tramacúa"), infamous for the continuing abuses of the prisoners’ human rights.


On that occasion, when about 20 people entered the parapoliticians yard to celebrate the birthday of former Congressman Juan Carlos Martinez, the Minister of Interior and Justice, Vargas Lleras, announced in his typically strident tones that he "would not allow more disorders, and that the parties [in prison] could not continue." Twelve months later the situation has not changed one iota, only this time, it is his friends, the businessmen/criminals of the Nule family, that are the protagonists of these scandals - people with whom he has close social and commercial ties.


For his part, INPEC Director General Gustavo Adolfo Ricaurte said that "the Nule [brothers] risk losing the benefits that the prosecution and judge granted him" [italics by Dr Beltran]. In a country where justice is actually implemented, he would not "risk" losing those benefits, he would ipso facto lose them. In fact when a normal prisoner, it is found with a mobile phone, he is immediately punished with a suspension of visits for one year, or is transferred to another prison far from his friends and family.

The truth is that the treatment of prisoners in Colombia highlights the inequalities of a country torn by deep social differences: while those who have economic, political or criminal power, receive preferential treatment, as in the case of the Nule brothers, those who lack it -ie the vast majority - survive in conditions that constitute an affront to human dignity.


These people are worthless to the Colombian State and do not receive the treatment the Nule brothers do, instead they are ignored, they are denigrated, and isolated. They are invisible, and tortured physically and psychologically. This is precisely the situation faced by over eight thousand political prisoners and prisoners of war - rebels whose status is systematically denied by the State which constantly violates their fundamental rights.


In this sense, it is worth recalling that when the hearing began to legalise the arress of the Nule brothers, while their place of future detention was still being discussed, the order came to the high security yard of “La Picota”, where 50 of us prisoners were being held, that we should immediately vacate the premises, because the Nule brothers were going to be held there.


Fifty inmates were told that we were to be transferred to other courts and to other overcrowded prisons to give comfort to four prisoners requiring "exceptional security measures." The Director in charge at that time, Captain (now retired) Aldemar Echeverry, personally visited the facility in the company of the brothers’ lawyers. At the end of the inspection they concluded that the place did not meet the occupancy requirements of the Nule gentlemen because of the odours, the seepage of water, the narrowness of the cells and the lack of lighting. Four "white collar" criminals could not be held there, but hundreds of other prisoners definitely could be held in these outrageous conditions.


In an act of "generosity," the retired officer offered the State House, which until then had been his residence, as a suitable place of imprisonment. In contrast to the 3 by 4 square meter cells we occupied shared between five or six prisoners, the Nule brothers could have now a house of 80 square meters with TV, refrigerator, ventilation system, comfortable beds and private baths.


Now many government officials are tearing their hair and go out of their way to denounce the "luxuries" and "excesses" of the Nule brothers, when they themselves have promoted a prison policy based on discrimination and inequality in the prison population. The dismissal of the directors in office, the news that the INPEC will be dissolved, the building of new prisons - far from solving the prison problem only worsen it. Examples of this have been the ERONs (the new high security National Prison Establishments), a prison system based on the guidelines set by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the United States, which is at odds with international protocols for the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, increasing the violation of the human rights of prisoners.


If these ERONs constitute, as officially stated, the solution to the overcrowding of the Colombian prison system, why have the Nule brothers - or hundreds of politicians accused of ties to paramilitary groups - not been transferred to these facilities? It isn’t difficult to answer this question. These establishments, built with money from "Plan Colombia" - are being used as a means of punishment for the thousands of political prisoners and prisoners of war deprived of their liberty.

The official media that puts so much effort into showing the dramatic plight of our compatriots held prisoner by the guerrillas in the jungles of Colombia, should also show this other, no less painful side of the war in Colombia, which shows ever more clearly the need for a political solution to the social and armed conflict in Colombia.

This is a translation of an article by former political prisoner Dr Miguel Angel Beltran. He was released from prison in June 2011 after being held for more than two years before being absolved of the charges against him. Justice for Colombia and UCU led an international campaign for his release.

Miguel Angel Beltran V.
Associated Professor
Department of Sociology, National University of Colombia
Former Political Prisoner

Translation : Justice For Colombia

Original letter : LOS NULE Y “LOS NULOS” DEL SISTEMA PENITENCIARIO COLOMBIANO, 7 de febrero 2012

 

Dr Miguel Angel Beltran was released from prison in June 2011 after being held for more than two years before being absolved of the charges against him. Justice for Colombia and UCU led an international campaign for his release.

Author: 
Miguel Angel Beltran

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