Thursday, March 4, 2010
Riots in Villahermosa Prison
We hear the news on the radio as we are breakfasting – one person dead, seven seriously injured and fires in some patios in the Villahermosa prison in Cali. I am with Walter who is part of the Committee for Political Prisoners (El Comité) and works with prisoners in this very jail around human rights issues.
Our morning plans quickly change. We pass by the office to check in with the rest of the team, share information and divide up tasks. We then jump in a taxi and head to Villahermosa, on route calling the United Nations, the International Red Cross and the Colombian Governments Human Rights Ombusdman to make sure they are aware of the situation and urge them to come to the prison.
Responding to emergencies is a consuming task; emotionally and physically, and one that diverts efforts from longer term work. Colombian human rights organisations have been responding to emergencies for too many years, and El Comité as one of the oldest HR organisations has a lot of experience.
Our taxi driver is told by another driver at a set of traffic lights that the road ahead is closed. He drops us at the police barricade and wishes us luck. The policeman lets us past and we head towards the prison gates where we find an angry mass of people, mainly women, shouting. Partners, mothers, sisters, and daughers are demanding more information. Photocopied lists of the injured and dead are passed around, groups swarming around each sheet. People respond angrily adament that there are more people dead and injured than this.
When two more of the infamous vehicles that collect corpses turn up the crowd gets angry and blocks the vehicles entrance to the prison demanding more information.
“How can they say there is just one dead person when there are now three of these vehicles. INPEC (National Prison Authorities) are lying to us. There are more people dead.”
“We heard prisoners in patio 9 shouting for help because there was more people injured. We have a right to know. We aren't saying our family members are saints but they deserve to be treated as human beings.”
Cries, sobs, shouts. The anxiety and tension is high. Walter attempts to mediate. He tries to ensure that the police don't use excessive force against people who have good reason to be anxious. And tries to get people to calm down and minimally trust the information that INPEC has given until an independent commission can enter to verify the facts.
The police pull out shields and begin to push people out of the way of the vehicle. Forces wins the day and the vehicle manages to enter. The gates are shut behind it and people crowd around Walter, desperate for someone, anyone, to be able to give them some news. He has no news to gives. Instead we begin to talk about the conditions in the prison and what might have sparked the situation.
The group of women around us speak about the general abuse that the prisoners have to endure at the hands of the guards and how it is impossible to report it as the situation would just get worse rather than better. They talked about how inedible food is used as a means of humiliation and degradation. I later found out that after previous complaints, tests were done on the food and evidence of excrement was detects. One women told me that there will be no food for the next three days as a form of collective punishment. The other women nodded their heads in agreement. We don't know the details behind the conflict and why at least one person is dead but we all agreed that the physical conditions in which the prisoners are forced to live plus the humiliation and lack of respect would cause a reaction in any human trying to keep a scrap of dignity. Just like the workers in Tauramena, a human spirit just cannot be kept down.
at 2:25 AM