[Ppnews] Columbia - La Tramacúa - Colombia’s Abu Ghraib

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Aug 19 15:04:32 EDT 2010



“La Tramacúa”: Colombia’s Abu Ghraib



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

http://www.narconews.com/Issue66/article4177.html

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 away­the 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 herself­I 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: 
<http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/valledupar/>http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/valledupar/.

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: 
<http://librosparalatramacua.blogspot.com/2010/06/la-tramacua.html>http://librosparalatramacua.blogspot.com/2010/06/la-tramacua.html.

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 
<mailto:james at afgj.org>james at afgj.org . The INSPP 
has also just debuted a new website, including a 
greeting from Political Prisoner Liliany Obando 
at <http://www.inspp.org/>http://www.inspp.org/.

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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