January Reports Indicate Dismal Times Ahead for Colombia’s 7,500 Political Prisoners

The first month of 2011 has not fared well for political prisoners and prison conditions in Colombia. Already at least two fatalities have occurred  under questionable circumstances, along with four arrests of student and labor activists. While the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos speaks about improvements regarding human rights in the country, facts on the ground suggest otherwise.

The first month of 2011 has not fared well for political prisoners and prison conditions in Colombia. Already at least two fatalities have occurred  under questionable circumstances, along with four arrests of student and labor activists. While the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos speaks about improvements regarding human rights in the country, facts on the ground suggest otherwise.
Following is a partial list of incidents:
  •  January 21, 2011: Leandro Salcedo was found hanged early on a Friday morning after having spent nine months in solitary confinement in the Special Treatment Unit of the La Tramacúa medium and maximum security penitentiary in Valledupar. Some prisoners have been held in the Special Treatment Unit there for as long as two years, in small cells, 24 hours a day, with no access to sunlight and temperatures reaching the upper 90s, with no cooling and severe limitations on access to running water. La Tramacúa is the first of at least 16 Colombian prisons funded and designed by the United States Bureau of Prisons. It is especially infamous for its bad conditions. In the US, the Alliance for Global Justice has begun a campaign demanding better conditions there, and an investigation of the US role at the prison. (To see an online petition connected with the campaign, go to http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/valledupar/ ) 
  • January 18, 2011: Jose Albeiro Manjarres Cupitre was wounded and captured March 14, 2008. He was serving his sentence at the Palogordo Penitentiary in Girón–another US designed and funded prison. Starting the beginning of July, 2009, Manjarres Cupitre began to suffer acute abdominal pains. Despite the filing of numerous petitions and legal motions as well as hunger strikes by fellow inmates on his behalf, Manjarres Cupitre was refused adequate diagnostic and treatment services. Instead, he was told by doctors contracting with the prison that he was suffering from “acute gastritis”. Finally, on the 17th of December, he was taken for medical consultation, where he learned that he had terminal cancer of the stomach. Prison authorities would not send Manjarres Cupitre to a hospital equipped for the pain relief and hospice care he needed. Instead he was sent to the hospital unit of La Modelo Penitentiary in Bucaramanga. Manjarres Cupitre died on January 18th, under conditions that constitute criminal neglect and torture. 
  • January 17, 2011: Student activists Julian Andoni Dominguez and William Rivera Rueda were both arrested in Bucaramanga, with no explanation given nor formal charges made. Rivera Rueda is also a member of the Informal Workers union, where he is involved in human rights defense. 
  • January 17, 2011: Union leader and activist Aracely Cañaveral Velez was arrested in Medellín. For over twenty years, Cañaveral Velez has been a leader in Garment Workers, Textile and Informal Workers unions. She is the sole provider for a minor-age child and an elderly mother. On January 18th, in the early morning hours, she was transferred to a prison 703 kilometers away from her family. She was charged with conspiring to commit assault and narcotics trafficking. 
  • January 13, 2011: Angye Gaona, poet, journalist, student and cultural activist, was arrested in the morning hours, in the city of Cúcuta, with no explanation given nor formal charges made. 


These incidents in January represent an escalation of an ongoing problem. Since 2000, Colombia has worked in partnership with the US government to redesign its prisons and increase their capacity by 40%, citing prison overcrowding. However, the prisons are still overcrowded, with the population growing from 63,000, according to government statistics, in 2007 to 106,000, according to a report by the El Tiempo newspaper, in 2010. (The family of President Santos owns El Tiempo.)
This new prison construction accompanied a significant increase in arrests. These included a 300% rise in the number of persons arrested for political reasons whose cases were later thrown out of court for lack of, or falsified, evidence. The accused spend an average of three years of incarceration and are frequently targeted for paramilitary assassination upon release. Once arrested, political prisoners are sent to institutions dominated by paramilitary gangs where they are increasingly mixed into the general population and, thus, targeted for violence. Most new arrests in Colombia, however, are of common criminals, themselves victims of a broken economy that has left at least 45% of the population living in poverty and almost half of Colombia’s children unschooled.
If the events of January 2011 tell us anything, it is that the human rights situation has not improved since Santos took office. Political arrests and the abuse of political prisoners are but one example. There are more than 4.5 million Colombians that have been displaced from over 12 million acres of land, and most of that is now in the hands of transnational corporations, wealthy landowners and paramilitaries and narco-traffickers. The Santos administration has at least proposed modest land reform, but it is woefully inadequate and would not return most of the displaced to their homes nor provide them alternative compensation. Rural displacement continues at an unacceptable pace and Colombia has surpassed even Sudan as the country with the largest number of internal refugees. Murders of unionists also continue at a rate that still exceeds the number of murdered unionists in the rest of the world combined. In fact, during the first 100 days of the Santos Administration, at least 22 political, labor and student activists were murdered. Concurrently, the rate of impunity for such murders rose from 95% to over 98%.
The events of this past January were preceded by other instances of political repression during the first months of Santos’ tenure in office. According to Traspasa los Muros (Beyond the Walls–the Committee for the Liberty of the Political Prisoners), a few developments occurring between Santos inauguration in August, 2010 and the end of the year include: 
  • In September, the political prisoner Felix Sanabria concluded a 46 day hunger strike for better conditions at La Tramacúa–concurrent with the first month and a half of Santos’ presidency. Sanabria’s efforts were completely ignored by authorities. 
  • Also in September, the political prisoner Jhon Jairo Villa Villada was subjected to beatings and stabbings on both the 16th and 17th at the Acacias penitentiary–another of the US designed and funded prisons. On the 16th, Villa Villada was taken from his unit as fellow-prisoners were shouting to the guards that they saw him being taken away “in good health and without [signs of any] beating”. He was then stripped naked, bound and chained, and struck repeatedly by the guards. Villa Villada was attacked the morning of the 17th by a gang of prisoners who beat and stabbed him in his own cell. Prison guards had come by earlier and unlocked the cell door, giving the gang access to his quarters.
  • On November 2nd, the Santos Administration requested the extradition of Manuel Olate Céspedes, a member of the Chilean Communist Party. Olate Céspedes had attended an international meeting in Ecuador. During that time he was part of an international delegation that visited a FARC encampment on the Ecuadorean and Colombian border that was working out details for the release of Ingrid Betancourt and three US captives. (This is the camp that was bombed in the Opertation Fenix attack on Ecuadorian territory by the Colombian Air Force.) The Colombian and Chilean governments are accusing Olate Céspedes of being a link between the FARC and the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile. 
  • In November, there were several arbitrary arrests of political opponents in Colombia, including the November 16th arrest of Carolina Rubio Esguerra in Bucaramanga. Rubio Esguerra, who was eight months pregnant, was arrested on the basis of anonymous testimony and charged with Rebellion. Esguerra is a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners and a regional facilitator for MOVICE (the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes).
According to Traspasa los Muros, there are over 7,500 political prisoners in Colombia today, divided into three categories:
1) Prisoners of Conscience, who are incarcerated because of their nonviolent activities of political resistance;
2) Victims of Frame-ups, who are jailed because they were in some way impeding political or economic goals desired by the government (including, for instance, farmers arrested on false premises who otherwise refuse to leave land desired by transnational corporations or big landowners);
3) Prisoners of War, the smallest category, being some 500 members of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and a smaller number from the ELN (National Liberation Army) and other armed groups. (Prisoners of War are included as political prisoners because of the need for a political solution to Colombia’s internal conflict versus a military solution accompanied by increased repression.)
A statement by the Areito Imagen artists’ group describes the situation in Colombia: “It is an unsupportable situation: every day they detain, murder or disappear a member of the political opposition, students, unionists, social activists, peasants…The repression exercised by the Colombian state against the Colombian people in order to silence their social recovery is brutal. It is urgent that the people of the world show their solidarity. This reality and its dimensions are excessive on a global scale and must be made known.”


It is the responsibility of the international community to speak out against this repression. All indications are that political arrests are growing and prison conditions are worsening. The International Network for the Colombian Political Prisoners has recently initiated a call for the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate Colombian prison conditions. They are also calling on the Colombian government to:
1) Stop the torture, abuse and neglect of political–and all–prisoners.
2) Segregate political prisoners into separate units for their protection.
3) Stop all politically motivated arrests.
4) Negotiate for a humanitarian exchange of prisoners of war as a first step toward dialogue for peace.
5) Free all Prisoners of Conscience and Political Frame-ups immediately.
To learn more about this effort, visit the INSPP website at: www.inspp.org.
James Jordan is National Co-Coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice.