Humanitarian and Human Rights Crises in Colombian Prisons

News from Colombia | | credit: on: Tuesday, 25 November 2014
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Humanitarian and Human Rights Crises in Colombian Prisons

By W. T. Whitney Jr.

Prisoners in Colombia have gained new visibility recently. Prisoner protest actions are one factor. Another is discussion in the Havana peace talks of prisoners as victims of armed conflict.

What happens at the talks readily becomes public knowledge in Colombia and elsewhere. That’s because negotiators of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) encourage discussions of their negotiating points in Colombia and publicize them on the Internet. November, 2014 marked the two-year anniversary of talks between the FARC and the Colombian government.

Beginning on October 20, hunger strikes and rejection of prison rules spread throughout 14 Colombian prisons. Spokespersons for the National Prison Movement (NPM), organizer of the demonstrations, denounced overcrowding, miserable health care, impediments to family visiting, poor food, filthy sanitary conditions, and contaminated and scarce water. They accused prison authorities of torture, reprisals, and corruption.

Earlier they called for a declaration of humanitarian emergency, passage of Law 082 which reduces sentences by 20 percent, eight-hour family visits, “real, definitive, and immediate” solutions for the prison health-care crisis; and no more extraditions. A Colombia – U.S. agreement provides for extradition every month of 15-20 Colombians in return for a U. S. subsidy. Most face drug trafficking charges.

Guards at Cómbita prison bent on intimidation placed political prisoners in isolation. Tramacúa prison in Valledupar was cited as the “the number one center for torture and systematic violation of human rights.” Tramacúa, some say, is the “Guantanamo of Colombia.”

The NPM organized hunger strikes in multiple prisons in April 2013. NPM then called for prevention and education instead of incarceration, reduced or alternative sentencing, and recognition of special status for political prisoners.

Humanitarian Crisis

Recently Bogota’s El Tiempo newspaper published a report, with photos, documenting Colombia’s prison scandal. One learns that, as of June, 2014, Colombia’s 138 prisons originally built to accommodate 76,553 prisoners were housing 117,018 prisoners - or 40,465 over the limit. The medium security prison in Riohacha, in Colombia’s northeast, has 538 prisoners occupying space for 100 prisoners.

According to the report, 34.5 percent of prisoners, some imprisoned for six years, have yet to be convicted or sentenced. Mentally ill prisoners are part of the general prison population, 108 children live with their imprisoned mothers, and employment is available for only 1,441 prisoners. Re-socialization and educational activities are impossible because 117, 018 prisoners must share 544 prison common areas.

Expressions of FARC solidarity with the protests added to public awareness. In a statement October 28, the FARC peace delegation “raise[d] its voice in solidarity with the prisoners and political prisoners involved with a hunger strike and peaceful disobedience.” The FARC backed NPM demands and named five prisoners who died without adequate medical care.

The statement condemned “death and destruction” following a recent fire in the Barranquilla prison and denounced violent repression of peaceful demonstrators at the Combita prison. The FARC urged “solutions for the structural problems and the deep crisis of the decadent and crumbling national prison system converted [now] into a scenario of torturing, crimes and flagrant violations of human rights.”

The FARC negotiating team provides reports on its “minimum proposals” on various agenda items, most recently that of victims. That report, focusing more on political prisoners than on the general prison population, identified victims and assigned responsibilities. The FARC regards both captured insurgents and imprisoned non-combatant dissenters as political prisoners.

Political prisoners’ human rights are being violated, the FARC claims, and they are “victims of the conflict.” FARC negotiators seek establishment of a “special study commission regarding the situation of political prisoners.” The commission “would identify victims of the state’s justice system subjected to judicial sham for political reasons.”

Victims of class conflict

By naming prisoners as victims of armed conflict, along with others, negotiators showed off the tendency of successive Colombian governments to lump armed resistance groups, peaceful dissenters, jailed insurgents, and non-violent prisoners of conscience together as enemies of the state. Schism within Colombian society is readily apparent.

Colombian governments have long served big landowners primarily, but also business and financial elites. Governments have sought to protect their use and control of land. Those claiming to speak and act on behalf of Colombia’s majority population are on the other side. Thus the context within which the fate of prisoners is shaped is one of conflict between social classes.

There are these other victims: hundreds of striking banana workers murdered in Ciénaga in 1928, thousands of land-hungry small farmers killed prior to Jorge Eliécer Gaitán’s assassination in 1948, 200,000 rebellious peasants killed over the following ten years, and tens of thousands of political dissidents, real and imagined, killed after 1964 when the FARC came into existence. FARC insurgents originally were small farmers defending their right to land. Millions of Colombians displaced from land are victims too.

In one set of their “Minimal Proposals,” FARC peace negotiators name the parties responsible for creating victims. That the U. S. government is one of them further confirms the class-based nature of victimization of prisoners. That government’s hostility to working or poor people’s mobilizations is well-known.

The FARC negotiating team recognizes “the central responsibility of the United States in the origin, persistence, and dynamics of expansion, escalation, and intensification of the conflict, in different phases and facets. The result has been to generate processes of systemic victimization.”

A prisoner’s video testimony

In recent weeks, delegations of Colombian victims traveled to Havana to testify before the peace negotiators. The fourth such delegation consisting of 11 former prisoners did so on November 3-5. None were political prisoners, yet an empty chair at their hearing would have been occupied by jailed FARC guerrilla Tulio Murillo. Colombian authorities refused permission for him to travel and testify.

A video rendition of Murillo’s testimony became a dramatic highlight. As reported on, Murillo gave “voice to prisoners demanding that the humanitarian crisis in Colombian prisons be overcome.” They are in prison, he charged, because of vague allegations of “rebellion” or “terrorism” and because criminal proceedings yield “judicial false positives.”

The Colombian army captured Tulio Murillo during combat operations. Torture in prison caused wounds that led to his leg being amputated. The video rendition of his testimony, recorded in the Cúcuta prison amidst a crowd of prisoners, shows images of prison life. (1)

Academic Francisco Javier Tolosa, himself a former political prisoner, points out that: “In the midst of the acute prison and judicial crisis the country is going though (…) we, 11 thousand political prisoners, do exist in Colombia.” Furthermore, “we require recognition as such, and also as victims of this social, armed conflict. We must have an actual voice in the building of a stable, long-lasting, and democratic peace.” (2)

Prisoner victims of class struggle got an internationalist boost recently from a letter sent by poet Marcos Ana from Spain. A steadfast anti-fascist, Ana spent 23 years in prisons of the Franco dictatorship and was twice condemned to death.

Ana wrote: “Solidarity has no borders or distances and all of us know of your existence and we are proud of your struggle and your sacrifices. (…) We pull you out of the shadows and return the light of day to you and the freedom they snatched from you. Let peoples by the hundreds come calling and looking for you with their red lamps advancing from the five parts of the earth!”

David Rabelo, a leader of Colombia’s Communist Party, is serving an 18-year jail term. Ana sent him a book of his poems. Inside, Rabelo found a message inscribed: “They wounded us, struck us down, even killed us, but they never turned us.”


The quote is from Tolosa’s new book titled “Colombia on the Road to Liberty and Peace,” Chapter two.

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