By Felipe Morales Sierra, El Espectador, February 24, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Some 200 men, commanded by “El Arcángel” (The Archangel), imposed their law in the La Modelo prison during the years of 1999 and 2003, declaring war on the FARC commanders also imprisoned there, and leaving a trail of death and crime in their wake. The government’s solution was to transfer them to other prisons, where the phenomenon was replicated.
The paramilitaries understood that “the prison was a social area, an area that they would have to dominate if they really wanted to control the territory where they were located.” That was the conclusion of a report that the Attorney General’s Office submitted to the Peace and Justice Branch of the Court in Bogotá where they reconstructed the manner in which the La Modelo Prison in the capital became a new paramilitary bloc. It was made up of combatants from all over the country who had been convicted and sent to this penitentiary, supposedly to be re-socialized.
The creation of this military wing in one of the most important prisons in the country “was an initiative by the brothers Carlos and Vicente Castaño Gil.” According to the document, they asked certain allies and commanders that were imprisoned to lead “a crusade” to take control of the prisons. The experiment, however, had its genesis in La Modelo Prison, where some 200 men, commanded by Miguel Arroyave, alias El Arcángel, installed a policy of terror, using the maximum security section between 1999 and 2003. This was a period in which the prison registered kidnappings, tortures, forced disappearances, and other crimes.
The second in command, according to the report, was Ángel Custodio Gaitán Mahecha and, together with El Arcángel, they declared war from the south side of the prison on the members of the FARC that controlled the north side. The courtyards were not guarded by Inpec (Colombia’s prison administration), but by the Self-Defense Forces. They used the same weapons they had used when they were free: Galil rifles, R15 or AK47, MGL, 9 and 7.65 millimeter pistols; revolvers, single cartridge shotguns, submachine guns, munitions, and explosives. All of this made La Modelo “a war zone”, leaving the prison population under attack, a population that had been entrusted to the guardianship of the government.
“ The control by the armed groups was so great that carrying weapons became normal, as well as the entrance of third parties and sex workers at any hour of day or night. The buying and selling of drugs or liquor; the imposition of forced contributions by the prison population; the imposition of fees for prisoners to enter the center or for travel to certain courtyards; the sale of cells or the right to sleep in certain areas; the imposition of a social order that included punishments on anyone who violated them,” reports the document.
The paramilitaries imposed their law on the La Modelo prison just as they had done in the war: with selective killings, kidnapping, torture, and massacres. It’s public knowledge that the contractor who took away the leftovers from the prisoners’ meals to make pig food complained at one point that he had found human parts like fingers among the scraps. But there were other techniques, similar and even more awful, like tunnels where they hid the bodies of the people they had murdered, dismembering bodies with utensils from the prison kitchen, and using cyanide to simulate heart attacks. It’s estimated that around 238 people died violently in La Modelo prison between the years of 1999 and 2003.
The worst thing, states the document, is that “after learning of a criminal event and those responsible, Inpec never demanded the records from the Attorney General’s Office or informed legal authorities about the conduct.” It’s well documented that the prison administrators were well aware of everything that was going on under their noses and they never reported it. It was only after the testimony by the paramilitaries themselves before the Justice and Peace courts that this situation became known.
Even though the authorities retook control of La Modelo in 2003 and relocated the members of the Internal Capital Bloc to other penitentiaries, it appears that the remedy was worse than the sickness. These are some of the paramilitary organizations inside prisons that the legal system is aware of:
Fidel Castaño Front, in the prisons in Barrancabermeja and La Modelo Prison in Bucaramanga;
Southern Liberators Front, in the prison in Pasto (Nariño Province);
Southern Andaquíes Front, in the prison in Cunduy in Florencia (Caquetá Province).