Friday, August 20, 2010

“La Tramacúa”: Colombia’s Abu Ghraib

Part One in a Series on US Designed Repression in Colombia’s Prison System By James Jordan

Special to The Narco News Bulletin

August 17, 2010

The name commonly used to refer to the Medium and High Security Penitentiary of Valledupar is “La Tramacúa.” What that name means exactly, no one is certain. But it is a name that is infamous throughout Colombia and has become synonymous with reports of torture, beatings and hellish conditions. It conjures up images similar to what we in the United States imagine when we hear the words “Abu Ghraib” or “Guantanamo.” Unlike those prisons, La Tramacua is not directly staffed by the United States government. It was, however, the first of a series of prisons in Colombia to be designed and overseen by the US Bureau of Prisons. The US government provided at least $4.5 million toward the development of La Tramacúa.

In fact, Colombia’s entire medium and maximum security system has been restructured with the partnership and management of the US government. Referred to as the “New Penitentiary Culture,” this partnership stands to usher in a “new culture” of repression and intimidation by increasing the capacity of these institutions by 40 percent, or 24,000 new prisoners. Colombia’s political prisoners are being concentrated in the harshest locations and forced to inhabit prisons with high populations of paramilitary prisoners. Paramilitaries are members of private “death squads” that are allied with the Colombian military and political right wing, private business owners and transnational corporations such as Chiquita, Drummond Coal and Coca-Cola. Along with their military allies, they are responsible for 80% of Colombia’s political violence.

In 2000, the US Ambassador and the Colombian Minister of Justice signed an agreement called the Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System. On the basis of this document the US would provide support to build new prisons throughout Colombia and to restructure the penal system on a US model, one emphasizing security over all other considerations, including the education and resocialization of inmates. The first of these prisons would be in the city of Valledupar, Department of César: La Tramacúa. It was considered to be a model for the “New Penitentiary Culture” and is often referred to as the “the most secure prison in the country”.

La Tramacúa is a modern facility, operational as of November, 2000. As a modern facility one would expect modern conditions. Instead, inmates are only allowed access to water…a trickle coming out of a pipe…ten minutes a day. Sanitation facilities are filthy and more often than not, backed up and not working. Prisoners are frequently fed spoiled food found to contain fecal matter. In 2001, the Office of the UN’s High Commission for Human Rights announced the discovery of fecal contamination after a visit to Valledupar. In 2008, the situation was corroborated by a microbial analysis by the office of the Secretary of Health for the Department of César.

A delegation from the Spanish principality of Asturias tried to visit La Tramacúa in February of this year, but was turned away—the first time this had happened to such a delegation. But based on past visits, interviews with inmates and the work of previous delegations, they gave this description:

“The place suffers extreme temperatures of 35-40 degrees (95-104 degrees Fahrenheit), without any mechanism for alleviation.

“In addition [the prison] suffers from serious structural failures, foremost the lack of water and use of deficient sewer systems, in which open sewage passes near the kitchen.

“Getting water, putting it in plastic bottles and climbing to the second, third, fourth, fifth floor, becomes the priority for survival of the prisoners, the motive behind fights, of coercion and corruption of the prison personnel.”

The bleak conditions are corroborated by Tatiana Cárdenas in an August 13, 2009 article for Colombia’s El Mundo newspaper:

“The inmates lack the minimum sanitary conditions; there is no water, the place is constantly surrounded with excrement from the same prisoners who, not having sanitary services to use, throw bags [of their waste] outside the prison and the lower floors….

“‘The smell you sense from before arriving is a stench that makes one feel sick. The flies are everywhere and the heat is unbearable,’ remembers Catalina [recalling a visit to her imprisoned husband]....”

A report by Radio Guatapurí illustrates the degree to which conditions at La Tramacúa can sink:

“It has been five days that water has not come to the different towers [of the prison], so much so that the inmates may be at the point of collapse, and the center of incarceration in an imminent sanitary emergency because of the accumulation of malodorous fecal materials and the little opportunity they have to bathe and wash clothes. At the most there is some to drink, said a desperate inmate who called the César Tribune.

“A volunteer for the Fire Department, said that water is getting to “La Tramacúa”, but it is not sufficient for the necessities they have.

“The Director of Valledupar’s Public Services recognized that there is low pressure and reported it is because the farms are breaking into the water lines of the system passing through the area in order to water their fields.”

The diversion of water to these farms has been exacerbated by the fact that Valledupar is a major paramilitary center. The Asturian delegation describes “…a theft of water destined for the jail by the surrounding farms, and when an official tried to stop this theft, he was fired. Why? Because in Valledupar there is the paramilitary presence and domination, and these farms belong to paramilitary murderers such as the “Jorge 40,” holders of political and economic power in the region.”

Because of the conditions, Valledupar suffers from a high suicide rate. Just a month after the situation described by Radio Guatapurí, an inmate was hanged in the custody of guards. There are some, however, that claim this was not a suicide, but an execution.

What is the attitude of the authorities toward the many suicides? In 2009 in Tower Nine, Alexandra Correa, hanged herself. When the women prisoners’ human rights representative, Esmeralda Echeverry, reported beforehand that Correa and her partner, Tatiana Pinzon, were threatening to kill themselves, the then-Director of INPEC (Colombia’s National Institute of Penitentiaries and Jails) Dr. Teresa Moya Suta responded, “Let her kill herself—I will assume responsibility.” A week later when INPEC’s second-in-command, Col. Carlos Alberto Barragán, visited the prison, he laughed in her face when Pinzon fell to her knees, begging to be transferred from Valledupar. When Moya Suta vacated her position, Barragán was promoted to the top position.

Nevertheless, a significant victory has been won with the closure of Tower Nine and the transfer of the women inmates from La Tramacúa. These prisoners had received no consideration or treatment specific to their status as women. Tower Nine was also home to one of the largest concentrations of women political prisoners.

After a campaign of several years initiated by the inmates and supported by the Committee in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (FCSPP-Federación Comité en Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos), the tower was closed on March 26th. The efforts of the Asturian delegation and statements by United Nations and international groups were important catalysts for this victory, along with the struggles of the women and their Colombian supporters. But it was not a victory without sacrifice. Luciano Romero was a unionist and a member of the FCSPP active in the campaign. He was assassinated after returning from a six month visit to Asturias.

Meanwhile, harsh conditions persist for the men of La Tramacúa. On July 13th, 2010, the Campaña Permanente de Solidaridad con las Detenidas y Los Detenidos Políticos/Traspaso Los Muros distributed an alert concerning the prisoners of La Tramacúa’s Fourth Tower:

“Today we received more information about the serious health conditions suffered over the last three months by 40 political prisoners in Tower 4 in Valledupar. The alarming symptoms are loss of hair and nails as well as bleeding from the mouth and in their bowel movements. They have repeatedly requested medical attention as well as medicines to help decrease their ailments. These requests have been denied by INPEC. These negligent acts…have enabled the spread of the symptoms, which are caused by unsanitary detention conditions.”

For the political prisoners and prisoners of war, the problems are multiplied. Housed where paramilitary criminals are also concentrated, the danger of violence is a daily concern. The paramilitary inmates are granted privileges not available to others and are known to carry weapons, sometimes provided by the guards themselves. Beatings, torture and collective punishment are common at the hands of both the guards and paramilitary gangs.

In an article titled “Life as a Political Prisoner in Colombia”, Vincenzo Gonzalez writes,“…Colombian prisons have been turned into ‘theaters of military operation’, where civil authority is subordinate to military and police authority and where universal and constitutional human rights are persistently violated….”

According to the Political Prisoners Collective “Adan Izquierdo”, founded by FARC-EP prisoners at La Tramacúa, their members are severely tortured and grossly mistreated by the INPEC prison guard:

“Every time the FARC takes any action against paramilitaries on the outside, the prison guard punishes the prisoners inside with beatings and other forms of torture. It is their way of demonstrating their allegiance to the state paramilitary strategy. The prisoners are denied the right to stay in touch with events outside the prison walls and are forbidden to receive newspapers or magazines. They are not allowed radio or television. Getting medical treatment requires extreme measures such as cutting the veins in their own wrists to attract attention. This is what one prisoner Enrique Horta Valle was forced to do when he desperately needed to see a doctor. They are frequently kept in their cells for 24 hours a day. Visiting family and friends are warned by the paramilitaries patrolling the prisons that they will be killed if they ever come back. The INPEC guard goes to great lengths to point out which visitors are coming to see political prisoners.”

A British study carried out in the late 1970s listed some of the forms of torture occurring in Colombian jails, including simulated drowning, simulated executions (usually referring to “firing” an unloaded pistol to the head), and beatings with blunt instruments while handcuffed. With the “New Penitentiary Culture,” these old practices have not disappeared. In the first six months of 2008, INPEC’s office for internal disciplinary control documented some 79 cases of physical and/or verbal abuse directed at prisoners. These included broken bones, beatings, hog-tying prisoners with both hands and feet handcuffed, sexual harassment, threats of death and the denial of medical care.

Between April and June, 2008, the FCSPP carried out a survey with 230 prisoners. When asked if the inmates had been tortured at least once during their jail time, 54% answered they had — 46% did not answer the question. Eighty-six percent said that they had experienced psychological torture, including threats to relatives and simulated executions. At least one Director in one of these “New Penitentiary Culture” prisons has had training at the School of the Americas in psychological operations — Col. José Alfonso Bautista Parra. SOA is infamous for its training in techniques of both physical and psychological torture.

The Colombian Coalition Against Torture explains that between July 2003 and June 2008, “at least 899 persons were victims of torture….Of all the cases where the alleged perpetrator is known (666 victims), in 92.6% of the cases the State’s responsibility is involved ….During the same period, the number of victims of torture dropped by 43.56% compared to the cases registered between July 1998 and June 2003. However, the increase by 80.2% in the number of registered cases directly attributed to the Army and Security forces (Army and Police-Fuerza Pública) is worrying.”

Not included in this study were cases of prison torture. However, the skyrocketing increase in incidents of torture by the Public Forces may be some indication. Many of Colombia’s medium and maximum security institutions are under the command of active and retired officers of the Public Forces. This is further evidence of Gonzalez’ assertion that these prisons have been turned into “theaters of military operation.” One also wonders if the general increase in torture is less a decrease than a concentration of such practices in the prisons.

Citizens of the US may well ask why the US has invested time, money and oversight in the Colombian prison system and, especially, in La Tramacúa. Former political prisoner Gustavo Mendoza explains,

“…the Interior Minister said recently that overcrowding is the main cause of the violations of the rights of prisoners. As a…solution, the Minister announced the construction of 11 new prisons with a capacity of 24,000 inmates-an increase of 40% of total capacity at the national level….Thus the Minister unveils plans [in keeping with the goals of]…Phase 2 of Plan Colombia, whose basic theme is the social control of the territory….Phase 2 of the plan is realized through the prosecution of activists from the social movement. By undermining the so-called ‘investor confidence’, these social movements are now the main obstacle to ownership of our natural resources by multinational corporations…. The increase in the number of detainees is also to be linked with the increasing social conflicts caused by the economic crisis looming on the horizon, reflecting the dependence of the Colombian economy to the North American market….”

The idea that Colombia must prepare for social and economic upheaval, and its results, is understandable. The alternative to social investment and development is the “security state.” After the much larger nation of Brazil, Colombia has the second largest military in South America, with more of its federal budget invested in the war (14.2%) than in education (13.9%). Despite being home to the world’s largest population of the internally displaced, only 1.7% of the budget goes toward housing and development. Poorer than its neighbors, Colombia has a 45% poverty rate, with 16% living in abject need. The combinations of displacement + poverty + lack of opportunity and social investment can easily add up to unrest.

But there can be no doubt that this “New Penitentiary Culture” is being developed with political prisoners and prisoners of war in mind. Since the original agreement was signed in 2000, the US has agreed to offer financial funding, design and advice for the construction of at least eleven new prisons. The construction of these prisons must be seen, also, in the context of the US expansion into seven new military bases in Colombia. The bases and the prisons are like right and left hands in an infrastructure created to subdue unrest and dissent. Behind these stand transnational corporations trying to gain access to and control over Colombia’s natural resources and the profits they hope to wrest away from the Colombian people. Dissent and resistance does not fit into that picture.

Currently there are an estimated 7,500 to 8,000 political prisoners in Colombia. Traspaso Los Muros says that there are three kinds of political prisoners: Prisoners of Conscience, arrested for their opposition to Colombian policies, more often than not in jail under the vague charge of “Rebellion;” Victims of Set-ups, prisoners who have been arrested on the basis of frame-ups and paid informants; and prisoners of war, guerrillas captured in battle.

“The majority of political prisoners are not guerrillas. There is an estimated number of 500 incarcerated members of the FARC-EP, based on various media reports, with a smaller number of prisoners associated with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and other armed insurgents.” When asked why they include Prisoners of War as political prisoners, the group explains that the guerrillas exist because of a political and economic conflict and, therefore, need to be dealt with through a political process for peace, based on dialogue among all major parties. In fact, the political prisoner solidarity movement in Colombia is completely linked to the struggle for dialogue and peace. Most progressive Colombian groups agree that a humanitarian exchange of prisoners of war between the guerrillas and the government will be the first step toward such a process. But for the past ten years, such releases have only occurred unilaterally on the part of the guerrillas.

There have been some statements from both the incoming administration of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that have led some to speculate that both an exchange and dialogue may be real possibilities. The continued pace of prison construction and military base occupation by the US, along with the deplorable human rights records of these new prisons, is evidence for another possibility: that arbitrary arrests of the political opposition will continue and these new prisons will be used to remove dissenters from the public eye.

Between 1992 and 2002, there were some 2,000 provably arbitrary arrests later thrown out of courts for lack of evidence. Between 2002 and 2006, there were 8,000 such arrests. In fact, according to Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva, Colombia has 2.2 million “cooperating civilians” and 3,000 paid informants, giving Colombia the hemisphere’s largest network of civilian and community spies-one out of twenty Colombians. Most of these arbitrarily arrested spend two to three years in jail before their cases are thrown out. The overlap of the period of prison construction with the increase in arbitrary arrests cannot be coincidental.

Author’s Note: There are a few actions people can take to show solidarity with the prisoners of La Tramacúa and all victims of this “New Penitentiary Culture,” especially the political prisoners. The Alliance for Global Justice has begun a campaign calling for the immediate improvement of conditions at La Tramacúa and for Congress to investigate the culpability of the Bureau of Prisons in allowing these conditions to develop. Those who wish to sign and/or circulate a petition for the campaign may do so by going to:

Yesid Arteta, a former guerrilla and former La Tramacúa inmate, now author living in exile in Spain, has begun an effort to collect books for a library at La Tramacúa. To learn more about this effort, go to:

The Alliance for Global Justice and Traspaso los Muros are among the members of the International Network in Solidarity with the Political Prisoners (of Colombia)—the INSPP. The INSPP has begun an English/Spanish language list serve that activists are invited to join to keep up with the latest information regarding the political prisoners. People can join that list by sending their email address to . The INSPP has also just debuted a new website, including a greeting from Political Prisoner Liliany Obando at

The inmates of La Tramacúa have been emboldened by the recent victory for the women formerly of Tower Nine. Although terrible conditions persist, there is hope in knowing that battles can be won when the prisoners and their national and international allies unite in struggle. When political prisoners and their supporters are asked what kind of solidarity is most needed from us in the US, the oft repeated consensus is that we push to change our government’s policies from sponsorship of war and repression to support for the humanitarian exchange of prisoners and freedom to all political prisoners as a first step toward a peace process based on inclusion and dialogue.

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