In Latin America, Revolting Jail Life

Colombia, like Peru, has had an intense spotlight put on its prisons.

An inmate riot last week revealed that more than 2,000 inmates in Bogot's Modelo prison have no beds, often sleeping in hallways. Some cells built for two people contain up to 10. In one cellblock, 600 inmates share one shower and two toilets.

Contrarily, drug-traffickers' cells are neat and clean. Usually, they have a cell with a bathroom to themselves, free use of telephones, access to luxury goods, food, and drugs. Due to the close contact with underpaid guards, almost anything becomes permissible with a high-enough bribe.

Last week's prison disturbances were the most violent of the two dozen escapes, riots, and murders so far in 1997. Prisoners across the country have protested extreme overcrowding and human rights violations.

"The system is designed to hold 28,332. In reality there are about 40,500 living in Colombian prisons," says Miller Rubio, spokesman for Colombia's prison police, known as INPEC.

The ability of rich inmates to bribe officials allows them to live well. For common criminals, overcrowding and lawlessness barely allow them to survive.

But Colombian jails may be neither the most comfortable for the wealthy, nor the cruelest for the unfortunate. The harsh double standard is found across Latin America, where most countries suffer from pervasive corruption.

Recent events suggest that Colombia may have to face the consequences of what officials admit is a failing system.

Almost 100 prisoners have escaped this year, mostly aided by leftist guerrillas. More than 500 prisoners have launched a hunger strike to protest poor conditions in several penitentiaries. And prison guards have threatened a national strike. "We are a force of 5,500," says Mr. Rubio, "we can't be expected to guard 40,000."

Mr. Rubio adds that rich criminals often buy off guards, some of whom earn as little as $350 a month. And the criminals do more than offer money. "They give the guards a choice: Accept bribes or die," says Mr. Rubio.

In Bogot's El Modelo prison, authorities recently discovered that drug lords have been making calls to countries from Nigeria to the United States. US Embassy sources have long alleged that Cali drug cartel bosses Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela continue to direct drug smuggling from behind bars.

Politicians don't find jail so rough either. Fernando Botero, President Ernesto Samper Pisano's former defense minister went to jail last year for admitting knowledge of a $6 million contribution to Mr. Samper's campaign from the Cali cartel. Samper was cleared by Congress of any knowledge of the drug money. Mr. Botero is under what amounts to a comfortable house-arrest in Bogot's military academy.

While Colombia may have a notorious history of luxury jails for powerful criminals, Mexico is gaining the same reputation.

"Mexican systems are self-governed by the prisoners," says Miguel Sarre, formerly prison inspector for Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights.

Mr. Sarre says Mexican prison officials rely on gangs within the prison for enforcement. The leaders of the gangs are rewarded.

"They have their own rooms or several rooms. They order meals from fancy restaurants. One gang leader in Morelos prison had a girlfriend living in the jail with him, and a second girlfriend on the floor above," Mr. Sarre says.

In some prisons, problems of overcrowding exist and wardens often enforce inhumane conditions, Sarre says. Criminals with money and influence easily avoid doing time in such places.

Politics as much as corruption can cause a double standard. According to Anne Manuel, deputy director of Human Rights Watch/Americas in New York, Peru's jails stand out.

"There is a unique punitive regimen for people accused of terrorism and treason, a charge which is very loosely defined in Peru," says Ms. Manuel.

Any convicted terrorist or traitor spends his first year in solitary confinement. Then adult family members may visit once a month for 30 minutes. Children may visit for half an hour every three months.

Peru has built a special prison for such offenders, which at high altitude, averages about 40 degrees F. and has no heat. "All of this is driving people crazy, literally - as seems to be the intention," Manuel says.

The extreme conditions of Peruvian jails are a key complaint of Tpac Amaru rebel leader Nestor Serpa Cartolini, who has held dozens of diplomats and officials captive in the Japanese Embassy in Lima since Dec. 17.

Politically connected terrorists are spared Peru's hard-line. In 1994, a death squad connected to the military was convicted of murdering nine university students. They went to a comfortable jail for a short sentence.

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