Colombia struggles for a peace pact in its prisons

A two-month-old prison nonviolence pact crumbles after last Friday's worst- ever prison riot in Bogot.

In a bitter blow to a revolutionary peace pact signed earlier this year, inmates here at the notorious El Modelo federal penitentiary rampaged in the most violent uprising in the history of this South American nation's prison system on Friday.

Passions ignited between far-right paramilitary fighters and other criminals following the Thursday discovery of a mutilated body stuffed in a sewer pipe. The event set off a chain-reaction of murders - 26 in all - until security forces ended the melee Friday evening.

For the past two months, the jail had experienced an uneasy peace. Where once there had been more than 10 violent deaths every month, there had been no murders at all since February, when inmates signed a six-month nonaggression pact. As proof of their intentions, inmates handed in 16 handguns, as well as dozens of hand grenades and knives. In return, they appealed for investment in training and education programs, and other quality-of life reforms.

Now after the obvious failure of this optimistic venture, politicians and citizens are frustrated over how to bring a peaceful resolution to the institutional violence so prevalent not only here in Colombia but also throughout Latin America.

The root cause of this latest uprising is "40 years of government neglect," according to Justice Minister Romulo Gonzalez.

So inmates themselves have tried to seek solutions.

In his 38 months as an inmate at Colombia's most dangerous jail, Fernando Joya reckons he witnessed more than 40 murders. "Stabbings, fist fights, a lynching, people shot dead. Many, many deaths"he remembers.

"Living locked up in a box, people lose their sense of humanity.... They start to act like animals"says Mr. Joya, trying to explain the violence which has dominated Bogota's El Modelo prison - despite the two-month hiatus.

But without help from outside, prisoners say they may not be able to stave off the violence much longer.

It took Mr. Joya and other prisoners more than four years to bring the jail's warring factions to the negotiating table, but he feels they had no choice. "We were living in hell - we had to do something," he vents.

And until others follow suit, he says, Colombia's overcrowded jails are doomed to an endless cycle of violent upheavals followed by armed repression. Last year alone 212 inmates were killed -131 of them shot dead by guards or other inmates.

The endemic violence, mass break-outs and pervasive corruption which plague the country's prisons are common throughout South America. But Colombia's 36-year-old civil war adds one more lethal factor to the equation, as battling factions clash behind bars.

"Our country is bathed in blood: people are dying in the cities and the countryside. The prisons just reflect the crisis," says Misael Mise, a convicted kidnapper who helped draw up El Modelo's peace agreement.

Earlier this month, troops were deployed to seven key prisons after leftist rebels freed 74 inmates from a provincial jail, detonating a car bomb to blast a hole in the prison wall. Days later, the Colombian government announced an ambitious jail-building program.

But more prisons may just mean more prison violence says Patricia Ramos, an ex-prison governor who now works for the state human rights office. "This is not a question of bricks and mortar. If you build 20 new prisons, they'll all be full in three years. We need to change policies and attitudes," she said.

Remarkably, that change in attitudes first took place in one of the country's most feared penitentiaries.

From outside, El Modelo -a grim two-story block squatting behind coils of razor wire -seems an unlikely setting for peace and reconciliation. Inside, the picture is even worse.

Built to house 2,100 men, the prison is now home to more than 5,000. Nearly 40 percent of them are still awaiting trial: Colombia's slow-moving legal system can leave a suspect waiting for up to four years before his case comes to court. The men mill aimlessly in the dark corridors or lounge in the barren patios.

The prison does offer education and work programs -but only to a few hundred inmates.

"What can you do if there's no work? You take drugs, you watch TV, you walk round the patio," says one prisoner.

The air inside is pungent with marijuana smoke. A constant barrage of radio chatter, slamming doors and shouting gives voice to the aggression of prison life. Liquor, drugs, and weapons are regularly smuggled into the jail, with the help of relatives and corrupt guards, who earn just $200 a month

A clandestine economy governs nearly every aspect of prison life -even sleep, says human rights defender Ramos. "If you want to sleep well you have to pay for the space," she says. Prisoners with cash pay guards or other prisoners for the right to sleep in cells. Those without money must sleep in the grimy corridors.

In the windowless room where a truce was first discussed, Mr. Mise recalls the prisoners' growing desperation.

"It was chaos, completely out of control, and there were no policies to stop the violence. So we started to pacify the jail ourselves." With a negotiating committee which included common criminals, captured rebels, and their paramilitary enemies, inmates created a space to resolve their grievances without violence. The group also arranged film screenings, gym classes, a prison radio station, a theater group, and invited visiting speakers.

But the El Modelo prisoners proved to be correct when they said that the violence wouldn't be staved off with goodwill alone. To prevent the kind of butchery that happened last Friday, they say there must be real opportunities to work and learn. And they need more attention from the ruling government.

"We all had to give in a little, but we managed to live together," says Mr. Joya, who until the recent outbreak regularly joined in mediation sessions at El Modelo.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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