Latin America

Colombia investigates disappearance of over 100 inmates inside prison

Investigators believe the victims were killed by paramilitaries operating inside the jail

Sally Palomino
La Modelo de Bogota prison.
La Modelo de Bogota prison.AP

Colombian authorities are investigating the disappearance of more than 100 inmates at a Bogota prison between 1998 and 2003.

Investigators believe the missing inmates were the victims of Colombian paramilitaries who allegedly poisoned and tortured them.

The cases were reported in the La Modelo de Bogotá prison, according to investigators.

Special prosecutor Caterina Heyck Puyana said evidence was gathered through visits to the jail, testimonies from other inmates, and investigations.

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“We know that at La Modelo de Bogotá prison there was a dark period in which people went missing – not only inmates and family members, but also visitors who were not connected to the jail,” she said.

Carlos Villamil, director of transnational justice at the prison, said testimonies heard during truth commission hearings involving paramilitaries have shed new light on the investigations initiated some years back about what took place at La Modelo.

At the same time, Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya also investigated the cases at the prison. She was later kidnapped and raped.

“Since 2014, when we initiated a process of closing cases built against the demobilized paramilitaries, we have heard stories from people who were at the prison and witnessed some of the atrocities that took place there,” Villamil said.

The paramilitaries appeared to have their own jails inside the prison.

“They had their own cells to lock up and torture whoever they wanted”

“They had their own cells to lock up and torture whoever they wanted,” said Villlamil, who adds that this opens a new chapter in the investigation of the paramilitaries who began to be demobilized in 2003.

According to some of the inquiries, the paramilitary groups ran the prisons allegedly without the knowledge of authorities.

While there had been public complaints, including from Bedoya, prosecutors believe that many witnesses remained silent because they either took part in the crimes or feared for their own lives.

At the time La Modelo had capacity for 1,800 inmates, but ended up holding more than 5,000.

In her investigation, journalist Bedoya said she gathered testimonies from witnesses who maintained that inmates were dismembered and their bodies thrown in the sewers of the complex.

Prosecutors believe that many witnesses remained silent because they either took part in the crimes or feared for their own lives

Some paramilitaries have come forward to provide details of the horrors inside La Modelo.

In the news magazine Semana, one ex-paramilitary described how people were eliminated.

“First, they would electrocute the person. If that person didn’t die [...] they would then remove him and throw his body in the food waste,” the magazine reported.

Prosecutors hope to further their inquiries to identify all the victims and bring those responsible to justice.

“A wide-scale investigation into the horrors that took place at La Modelo should be carried out by criminal prosecutors, but at the same time all of Colombian society needs to reflect on what has happened,” said Heyck Puyana.

English version by Martin Delfín.

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