Ariz Carrillo spent two years and five months locked behind bars at one of Colombia’s maximum security prisons, la Tramacua —a place so renown for its human rights abuses that it has been dubbed “the Guantanamo of Colombia.”
“For no reason, only because I was a political prisoner. They tortured me like that just for being part of an organization,” said Carrillo.
The jail is even worse for political prisoners. This includes guerrilla fighters, human rights workers, social movement leaders, union representatives, small farmer organizations or other government critics, who are sent to La Tramacua for special punishment.
The prison is situated in the northern Caribbean region of the country, where the heat regularly reaches up to 100 degrees Fareinheit (almost 40 degrees Celsius). There is no ventilation system in this sweltering heat, prisoners are not allowed to have fans, and the prison is also severely overcrowded.
But any one of those people behind bars will tell you that the worst part is the lack of water. The water is only turned on for about 10 or 20 minutes each day, and even then it only ever reaches the first floor. Prisoners are expected to collect what they will need for the day in those few minutes of access time, which often leaves the 1,448 inmates wanting.
Since they are forced into rationing this minimal water supply, many prisoners also resort to urinating and defecating in plastic bags to avoid having to flush them down the toilet.
But this is all a normal part of daily life in La Tramacua, which is made worse for political prisoners who suffer extra mental and physical abuse.
Carrillo was one of them. His crime that led to his imprisonment: being a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, the country’s largest guerrilla group.
“They would come with masks on their faces, to other inmates too, they would spray us with (tear) gas, put us in water, connect us to electric currents, hit our bodies with sticks, would leave us practically dead until they had to take us to the hospital,” Carrillo told teleSUR.
According to Carrillo, those who were deemed as troublemakers were taken to a special cell called the Villa Mosquito —which is a small room about one meter wide and two meters long, has no ventilation in the sweltering Caribbean heat, and is a hot bed for mosquitoes.
According to July Henriquez, a human rights lawyer with the organization Lazos de Dignidad (Spanish for Ties of Dignity), the prison is referred to “the jail of punishment” since leaders of social movements, and other government critics, are specifically sent to La Tramacua.
“The way to silence them is to send them there,” Henriquez told teleSUR.
However, the situation spreads beyond La Tramacua prison. Carrillo is one of thousands of political prisoners being held behind bars in various jails across the country—what human rights organizations say amounts to over 9,500 people, but what the government says is closer to 4,000.
Carrillo was arrested in 2013. He was charged with and found guilty of “rebellion,” what is defined as a refusal of obedience or order, a common charge laid against insurgents and leaders of social movements.
Guerrilla fighters have a particularly hard time in Colombian prisons and are often subjected to extra punishment by the guards because of their position as combatants in the country’s ongoing war.
In Carrillo’s case, prison authorities deliberately held back medical attention, which resulted in him living in pain for almost a year and losing 10 centimeters of his right leg.
When Carrillo was arrested in October 2013, he suffered from a bullet wound in his right femur due to a recent clash with another armed group. Prison authorities however denied him medical attention, telling him he would only get hospital care if he gave the authorities information about his leaders.
“They said they will leave my leg to rot and I would lose it if I did not collaborate with justice,” Carrillo told teleSUR.
When he refused to speak, Carrillo lived with the pain of a bullet wound for almost a year and watched his leg decay.
It wasn’t until his lawyers began to put real pressure on authorities that he was given hospital care. Finally, in July 2014, they discovered that the only way to save his limb was to amputate almost four inches of bone and flesh on his upper thigh, and join the leg back together again.
According to Henriquez, this lack of access to proper medical treatment has long been an issue in prisons across the country, where they do not have medical services or medicines for the thousands of people being held behind bars. According to the human rights body of the United Nations, the OHCHR, this is a violation of human rights.
Inmates wave from Modelo jail in Barranquilla, Colombia. | Photo: AFP
“This is a serious serious problem and has all the human rights bodies concerned,” said Henriquez.
Nonetheless, neither the country’s prison authority institute, INPEC, nor the federal government have shown cause for concern.
This issue of lack of medical care in La Tramacua was underscored yet again in April when an inmate, Jose Ulises Quintero Loiaza, died after he contracted apendicitis and his apendix burst. Loiaza had complained to prison authorities about stomach problems for almost a month before his death, but was constantly refused medical attention.
Human rights workers have long been leading an international campaign to close La Tramacua, which was built in 2000.
According to Henriquez, the prison was the first of many to be built in Colombia under the U.S. prison-industrial model focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation, which has proven to be a “massive failure.”
Even those on the inside are part of the campaign. Since February 23, 217 inmates -- including Quintero Loiaza -- have been on hunger strike protesting the prison conditions, particularly the lack of water. The strike continues today, however regular hunger strikes have become common practice, according to news reports.
In December, the Supreme Court ruled that La Tramacua must change its operations to comply with international human rights standards. However, the prison continues to operate as normal.
According to Henriquez, neither INPEC nor the Colombian government has put pressure on the institution to comply with the ruling.
Releasing Guerrilla Prisoners Could Help End over 50 Years of War
Detained guerrillas have only recently been acknowledged by the government as being political prisoners, now referring to them as prisoners of war. Prior to May 2015, the combatants were designated as “terrorists,” which human rights groups have long disagreed with.
Carrillo was one of 30 FARC members who were pardoned by the government in November and promised immediate release.
Both of these moves were seen as symbolic “confidence-building gestures” for the current peace talks between the FARC and the government. The two sides have been negotiating in Havana, Cuba, since 2012 trying to bring the over 50 years of war to an end, which has already resulted in over 220,000 people killed and millions more displaced or disappeared.
Despite constant roadblocks in the peace talks, including recently missing the self-imposed deadline for a final peace deal in March, the two sides have come to various agreements over the years and made various concessions -- including acknowledging the FARC’s role as political combatants.
Carrillo was finally released in January with 25 other members who were being held for minor charges in prisons across the country. The remaining four were initially held back for unknown reasons, but have since been released also.
According to Henriquez, human rights workers in the country have long maintained that guerrilla fighters should be legally considered political prisoners because, “the war is political, and because the causes of them picking up arms are political,” Henriquez told teleSUR.
In Carrillo’s case, he joined the guerrilla movement seven years ago because he considered it as the only way out of being a victim of poverty and violence, he told teleSUR.
The former insurgent is from the northern department of La Guajira, where they would experience almost daily threats by the army or paramilitary groups. The department is also one of the country’s poorest, renown for the high number of deaths caused by malnutrition, specifically those of the indigenous Wayuu community. This problem continues today, as over 16 children have died from malnutrition in La Guajira alone since January.
“So then there’s the FARC. There’s another direction, and that’s to grab arms to change and counter this,” said Carrillo.
Not everyone feels the same way toward guerrilla fighters, with some saying that their decision to bear arms also contributes to the ongoing violence in the country -- which paramilitary groups, drug gangs and Colombian forces in an ongoing turf war also contribute to.
Regardless of how one feels about guerrilla fighters, their release from prison is essential to peace in the country and the ongoing negotiations in Havana. The FARC has long demanded that its members be released from all prisons across the country before a final peace deal will be signed. Currently, the FARC says there are at least 1,200 of its members still being detained.
Political Prisoners Beyond the Prison Walls
Human rights groups say there are some 9,500 political prisoners being held in prisons across Colombia. | Photo: AFP
International rights groups, such as the U.K.-based Justice for Colombia, have long been campaigning for the release of political prisons.
Some of the more prominent campaigns include demanding the release of David Rabelo, a human rights defender and journalist; Francisco Toloza, a member of the left-wing party Marcha Patriotica; Huber Ballesteros, a trade unionist and small farmer activist; and Omar Alfonso Combia, an activist and teachers’ unionist, among others.
Not all of them are being held in La Tramacua, but where they are is typically no better. La Picota, La Modelo and the women’s prison Buen Pastor are also popular places for political prisoners, but all of these places have shown similar evidence of extreme overcrowding—between 60 and 137 percent—lack of hygiene, and absence of medical care for prison inmates, according to reports by Justice for Colombia.
These are only some of the more prominent activists, unionists and rights workers in the country; however thousands more remain in lockup.
But the way political prisoners are treated behind bars is a bigger reflection of the way human rights workers, activists and critical thinkers are treated in Colombian society in general.
Not only do these players risk imprisonment and harsh punishment, but their lives are also constantly put at risk. Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper recently reported that some 534 political activists were killed in the country between 2011 and 2015. This year, that threat spiked when over 16 activists and rights workers in the country were killed in the month of March alone.