Two jail directors and 120 workers within Colombia’s national prison system are accused of charging inmates for perks, including better housing, in a case that underscores the role jail authorities play in the vast corruption networks within Latin America’s prisons.
Last month, authorities arrested the jail directors at two Bogotá prisons, La Picota and La Modelo, according to Cali’s El Pais newspaper.
Prosecutors say Luis Perdomo, La Picota’s director, sought 30 million Colombian pesos (around $9,470) from prisoner and suspected drug lord José Bayron Piedrahita Ceballos. The payment was to allow family members to see Piedrahita before his pending extradition to the United States to face racketeering and corruption charges. Authorities arrested the jail director on January 27 at a meeting with Piedrahita’s son, El Espectador reported. Perdomo has denied the charges.
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Three days later, César Ceballos, the director of the La Modelo prison, was arrested on corruption and illicit enrichment charges. Prosecutors say he asked for cash payments from inmates and their family members for better housing assignments. Medical appointments, illegal drugs, alcohol and even guns could be had for a price, El Tiempo reported. Ceballos has denied the charges.
In the last two years, some 120 people working for Colombia’s National Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario – INPEC) have been arrested for bribery and extortion, according to an El Tiempo investigation published in the wake of the jail directors’ arrests.
InSight Crime Analysis
The massive bribery scheme involving two of Colombia’s top prison officials underscores how Latin America’s prisons help spawn and reinforce organized crime structures.
Prisons throughout the region are old, neglected and overcrowded. In some countries, deplorable conditions and underfunding have led authorities to largely surrender control to the inmates themselves.
In the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, gangs run cell blocks or even entire jails. For example, in El Salvador, imprisoned Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gang leaders use the country’s prisons like their headquarters, directing extortion rings on the outside. In the case of Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) prison gang, members must pay dues to pay for lawyers and for protection from abuse by guards. Mafias known as "pranes" have set up an extortion system in Venezuela’s prisons, where inmates who want to have visitors must pay.
SEE ALSO: The Prison Dilemma in the Americas
Colombia’s prison system, while safer and better organized than most in the region, is nonetheless severely overcrowded and lacking oversight. This has long allowed for what are called "caciques" -- usually cartel kingpins, guerrilla commanders or paramilitary leaders -- to control certain spaces, or “patios,” within the prison, and to tax contraband such as cell phones, drugs and liquor.
In this bribery scandal involving the national prison system, however, the guards and directors themselves became caciques. They handed out the perks, controlled the prices of contraband, and most importantly, held the keys to patio assignments and visitations.
Several inmates described in detail the black market that flourished within Colombia’s prisons. A prisoner at a jail in Barranquilla said that inmates paid for bags of rice, televisions and air conditioners. Inmates at Bellavista prison outside of Medellín were charged by jail authorities to be placed in study programs or on jobs that reduced prison time.
At the Picota prison, inmates paid monthly rents of 3 million Colombian pesos (around $1,000) to be housed in more comfortable cell blocks. A guard also told El Tiempo that he had been threatened for revealing corruption within the prisons and that colleagues had been killed for similar whistleblowing attempts.
Audio recordings revealed in a court hearing show just how systematic the bribery was within Bogotá’s Modelo jail. While speaking with a female relative of a prisoner, a subject in one recording tells her that to move prisoners to a better patio required a payment of 20 million Colombian pesos (around $6,500 to the director.
“You are not the only one paying,” he tells her.