Friday August 4th, 2007, 10:30am: two members of the Political Prisoners’ Solidarity committee (CSPP) are waiting for us outside of La Modelo prison. Thanks to them the doors of this hellish prison were opened to us. LA Modelo is one of Bogota’s five prisons, slong with Picota, Buen Pastor, la Distrital and UPJ. You could almost believe that the Colombian state respects the dignity of its prisoners when you read the slogans that the authorities have painted on the walls, such as: "Su dignidad y la mia son inviolables" The reality is completely different, in this high-security prison, designed for 1800 prisoners a total of 5000 people have been crammed in.
This prison is different from others as they do not seperate the prisoners. Paramilitaries, corrupt cops, drug traffickers, normal prisoners, dealers and guerilleros (politicals) share the same cells and courtyards. The authorities argue that the prison is supposed to reconcile former enemies. But in the safe environment of the prison wings and courtyards, during exercise and football matches, no one mixes, people do their best to ignore each other. Only last week a guerillero was almost stabbed during a meal by a paramilitary prisoner from the Aguilas Negras group. In June 2001 clashes between guerilleros and traffickers left ten dead. The previous year 25 had died in similar violence. The other notable difference between this prison and others that affects the day to day life of prisoners is that here the guerilleros are in the minority.
Camilo, a fifty-something professor of philosophy, is responsible for guerilla group’s ideological training. He was caught 15 years ago as he travelled the country, moving from town to town, teaching his lessons. He’ll be there for a long time, his various sentences add up to a total of 185 years. Since the beginning of his incarceration his life has been regulate by regular changes of ’residence’. Camilo has been in almost all of the country’s prisons. He’s experienced psychological pressures, torture, beatings and the simple impossibility of developing relationships with other prisoners. The aim is obvious, to dehumanise the individual, to permanently humiliate him. He gets transferred from one prison to another with only a day’s notice.
In Modelo he shares his cell with a paramilitary, a cop and a smal-time dealer. He doesn’t complain, at least he has a bed, which is not the case for many of his ’political’ comrades who do not have the means to buy one from the bosses of the small mafias that run the wings. For them there is no choice other than sleeping on the floor in the corridors, or even on the stairs.
Camilo still has dreams; of being able to return to teaching philosphy, his lifelong passion, of a prisoner exchange between the guerilla movement and the fascist Uribe government. When asked whether he is afraid for his life in a prison where paramilitaries are the majority the response is simple: no, they know him and they know who he is.
Danny and Victor...Hugo
Another change of wings. We head towards wing 2A, the screws keeps us waiting for a good hour. Long enough for us to see the hostile looks of the normal prisoners in transit. Their faces worn by drugs and poverty the ’normals’ can instil fear in you. They are the ones that usually end up as killers, joining the ranks of the paramilitaries for a few pesos. In the courtyard of this wing a wild game football starts, most of the 200 prisoners here are paramilitaries and they’ve made us for ’politicals. When we get to the wing a group of ten guerilleros are waiting for us. A young afro-colmbian tells us of the difficulties of prison life. Paramilitaries and ’normals’ receive preferential treatment. In contrast to Camilo’s wing, here in 2A there are more ’politicals’ and they can stand up for themselves better.
The discussion begins with Danny and Victor Hugo. Both are in their thirties and are originally from the Arauca region in the east. They rarely get visits, Arauca is far from Bogota and their families don’t have cash to pay for bus journeys to the capital. For Danny and Victor their familly will be, for a year and two years respectively, their cellmates. Hector, a baby-faced 23 year old isn’t so lucky. He still has six years left of his sentence. Victor and Danny retrace their journey here. The guerilla group, girls, the dead, comrades, familly, hope... Victor is particularly affected by the difficulties that La Modelo imposes upon them by putting them in with paramilitaries. Amongst them three black eagles who are in prison for the murder, among others, of his younger brother. Antonio was 16 years old, the paramilitaries murdered him and, using a tactic common to paramilitaries, cut off his hands and feet. His only crime was to be the brother of a guerillero.