La Modelo prison in Botogá, Colombia, is notorious for the free reign that its 11,000 odd inmates enjoy. The prisoners completely run the show, with easy access to guns and grenades, while the prison guards do not carry any weapons inside the premises.
The inmates frequently resort to violence in order to settle disputes between the left-wing rebels and the right-wing government supporters and paramilitaries that inhabit the north and south wings of the prison, respectively. The rivalry between the two sections has lead to several killings, all of which were carried out in the central area in between the two wings. Members of the guerrilla movement FARC who are imprisoned in the north wing actually carry out their military drills within their section of the establishment. Ammunition is smuggled into the prison and sold at about $1,000 per gun, thanks to the cooperation of corrupt officials.
Guns aren’t the only perks that the inmates enjoy. They use cell phones freely and have access to satellite communication, which allows them to carry on with their criminal activities in the outside world, like drug dealing, kidnapping, and extortion. They even have restaurants inside the prison, one of which is sponsored by FARC and provides free food to left-wing rebels. Other restaurants are run by individual inmates, who pay taxes to the gangs every month. But the most baffling of perks enjoyed by La Modelo inmates is ‘Ciambiazo’ or ‘big change’, in which a prisoner can change places with a visitor from the outside for only 2,000 to 2,500 dollars.
Photo: Colprensa/El Nuevo Dia
“It’s the prisoners who control the prison,” a guard said, speaking to The Sun. “They organise themselves. We’re only instruments that survey the walls and control the barriers. Nothing more.”
Over the years, there have been several reports of gory acts of violence inside La Modelo. In April 2000, 25 prisoners were murdered during a fight. The incident sparked so much publicity that the government of Colombia attempted to change the prison order, shutting down private shops and stepping up security. But the efforts did not make much of a difference – 100 inmates escaped only a year later, in June 2001, after FARC members blew a hole in the wall. The organisation actually took responsibility for the incident, with then FARC commander Jorge Briceno boldly stating that “it would continue to carry out such actions to free captured comrades from jail.”
This event led to the forced resignation of Fabio Campos Silva, the Director of the Colombian National Penitentiary Institute back then. Several hundreds of employees, suspected of being corrupt, were fired. A three-month ‘prison emergency’ was declared, during which security was further beefed up. All the shops and restaurants inside were closed, and many inmates were transferred to other prisons. The government is currently building modern jails to house these high-risk inmates, a project that is being funded by the U.S. government.
Despite all these measures, the authorities have not been able to put a complete stop to the smuggling of guns. Earlier this year, officials made a shocking discovery – the inmates of La Modelo have been disposing of their victims by throwing them into the drainage system. The remains of at least 100 dismembered prisoners and visitors were found in the jail’s drain pipes. “The number of the victims is unknown, but we know it’s over 100 and could be considerably higher,” said Caterina Heyck, an investigator at the attorney general’s office.
With most of Colombia’s prison budget being spent to house and care for high profile, maximum security inmates, a permanent solution to La Modelo’s problems does not seem imminent.