Prosecutors in Colombia believe over 100 people were murdered, dismembered and disappeared in a Bogotá prison between 1999 and 2001, in a macabre example of how armed groups and drug traffickers turned Colombian prisons into hubs of organized crime.
Colombia’s prosecutor’s office has announced it is investigating the disappearances of at least 100 people in Modelo prison, who they believe were murdered and their dismembered bodies disposed of in the prison sewage system.
According to witness testimonies, the disappearances were carried out by paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), who at the time ruled over the prison wing where the investigation is focused.
The prosecutor leading the case, Caterina Heyck Puyana, said the victims were not only prisoners, but also their families and other people from the outside.
In an interview with radio station La FM, Heyck described how the paramilitaries, as well as drug traffickers and guerrilla groups, ruled over their sections of the prisons, running a variety of criminal activities including arms and drug trafficking and prostitution with the complicity of corrupt officials.
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In the late 1990s and early 2000s, prisons such as Modelo were commonly divided into three wings, one for guerrilla groups, one for their paramilitary enemies, and one for common criminals. Each were able to form heavily armed criminal structures to rule over their respective areas, and deadly confrontations between them were common.
According to media investigations and testimonies of demobilized fighters, the paramilitaries also used prisons to collect drug debts and ransoms, hold kidnap victims, and carry out murders.
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Journalist Jineth Bedoya, whose kidnapping from Modelo prison in 2000 was the starting point for the current investigation, said that at the time Modelo was “the office from where the biggest crime networks in the country were managed.”
Although evidence of people being dismembered and disappeared has long circulated, the current investigation is the first indication of the scale of the atrocities, which prosecutors say were likely repeated in numerous paramilitary controlled prisons around the country.
Currently, Colombian prisons remain a hotbed of corruption, crime and appalling conditions. However, despite their weaknesses, they are no longer directly ruled by armed groups as they were in the early 2000s.