Opinion: Inside the the columbia three's bogota prison

  • 28 January 2005
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We sat in a small café, opposite the prison, waiting for clearance from the authorities for our visit. El Modelo is situated in an extremely poor quarter of Bogota and the people around us represented the marginalised in this divided and dangerous country. Thousands have been displaced from the countryside.

The city, at eight million people, is overcrowded and unemployment is high, despite this being an oil-rich country. Many of them make their living through hawking goods on street corners or begging. Yet, once we were allowed into the prison, just metres from the poverty and deprivation, we were met by guards armed with weapons which must have cost a small fortune.

After being searched and finger printed, we passed through the security checks to the inner prison, a dull, grey, gloomy place, where we could feel the tension. Prisoners convicted of, or on remand for, criminal offences stared out at us with blank faces from behind bars.

When we reached the compound, or cage, where the Irish men were detained, we were met by three faces, familiar from the posters of the "Bring Them Home" campaign. They were absolutely elated that we had come. We joked with Martin McAuley who had put on a shirt and tie to greet us. All of them seemed more concerned about our safety than their own personal situation.

It was at that moment that I knew I had made the right decision to travel. I thought about those in the media and in the Dáil who had tried to discourage me from going to Colombia to act as an observer, using all sort of spurious arguments and attempting to score political points.

The succour we offered these three men was the support to which they were entitled, the concern of fellow human beings, fellow Irish citizens, anxious for their safety and that they would get a fair trial.

Conditions in the jail are appalling. In a wing designed for 14, they live along with 40 other prisoners, most of who belong to the FARC guerrilla movement. Above them is a landing occupied by right-wing paramilitary prisoners who just last year launched an armed attack on the FARC prisoners. I was standing on the spot where prisoners were shot and killed.

We sat in white plastic chairs (up until a few months ago the men had little furniture and had to sleep on the floor) and chatted for about half an hour. A radio played in the background. The other prisoners nodded to the strangers from Ireland and gave us warm smiles. We were handed a cup of coffee.

Some men sat weaving or chatting in groups. Others began preparing lunch -– cooked beans and potatoes that they had made especially for us. The prisoners have nothing to do but wait. I met one man who had been on remand for 10 years, never having faced trial.

I thought of what former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan had said: "Concentration on human rights ensures that victims are no longer faceless. They have names and addresses and families and relatives who await the help of those who call themselves free, educated and compassionate. And that, I hope, is all of you."

As we stood talking one, of the prisoners pointed to a manhole cover on which we were standing and it was explained that this was where the paramilitaries had dumped the bodies of some of their victims, having cut them up first. In that incident 32 prisoners were killed. In a later incident another 10 were to die, most of them at the hands of the 3,000-strong right-wing paramilitary prisoners.

Colombian lawyers, trade union and students spokesperson, agricultural workers, Amnesty International, amongst many other human rights organisations, have all tried to tell the world about the truth of the conflict in Colombia, while most governments have looked the other way.

Since 1986, 3,800 trade unionists have been assassinated, 178 in the part year alone. Besides the deaths in the prisons, there were worse horror stories about the outside.

The FARC jail commander, Julio Serpa, told us that when his movement had attempted to enter democratic politics, 4,000 of their candidates were assassinated by government forces or those right-wing paramilitaries acting as their surrogates.

Despite that, and the war that followed, they still want inclusive dialogues and to develop a peace process. He was an impressive figure who, in any other circumstances, I thought, would be a senior civil servant, a bank manager or even a backbench TD! However, this is Colombia and anyone left of centre is an 'extremist' or a 'legitimate target' for the death squads.

The time passed quickly and we soon had to leave. We said our goodbyes and it was sad to leave them behind, amidst such danger.

It occurred to me that their smiles were now stuck on for our benefit. We were leaving. They were staying.

We walked nervously through the corridors of the right-wing paramilitaries and, to tell the truth, it was nerve-wracking. I could not wait to get to the main prison gate. However, we were stopped in our tracks.

A prison guard told another observer, Paul Hill (of the Guilford Four), that another Irish citizen had just been detained. Paul was determined that we see him. We were taken from the maximum security wing to the detention area for petty criminals.

We looked into the cage, which was about the size of a small sitting room. It was filled with what must have been close on 50 prisoners. The one European stood out a mile.

He stepped forward and Paul asked him did he want us to contact the Irish embassy. But he said he was from Belgium and Paul said he would do what he could.

As we walked away, we slowly glanced back at the glaring eyes of 50 desperate, ill-dressed and undernourished prisoners. It was a relief to get away from the hell of El Modelo.

Finian McGrath is the Independent TD for Dublin North Central