Colombia’s political prisoners’ futures hang on electoral outcome

Colombia
Prisons
Julian, one of many guerrillas in Bellavista prison. Photo: Julia Weiß / Hoffnungsträger

A brown curtain covers the bars of the cell. Julian is sitting on his bed and talks about the day he got arrested. Together with two FARC colleagues he placed a bomb in a military station – it exploded and three people got injured. An informant tipped off the cops and led them to their hiding place. That happened six years ago. Ever since he is moving from prison to prison. Eight months ago, he was transferred to Bellavista in the city Medellín.

Another inmate is preparing hot chocolate on a provisionary cooking plate – an electric wire tied around a brick, placed on a narrow sideboard opposite of the bed. Another young man brings some Buñuelos, typical fried cheese dough balls. All of them are political prisoners, having fought for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN). A heavy barred door is the gate to their world.

Julian, today 30-years-old, is one of 11 FARC members, who are still here in Bellavista in patio 16, a part of the prison supported by the German NGO Hoffnungsträger and its Colombian partner organization Prison Fellowship Colombia (PFC). In the whole country, according to the FARC’s count, there are around 620 former combatants behind bars. One and a half years ago, the government signed a peace treaty with the former guerrilla organization, including amnesty for the majority of the former fighters. But until today, the waiting continues. Their trust into the state has hit a low point, they hope for the support of the international community, as the state is not complying with the peace accord, they repeat.

Photo: Julia Weiß / Hoffnungsträger

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos admits delays in a speech he gave in the end of April. ‘It is a long and complex process, which needs time,’ he says. His government is now trying to speed up the peace accord’s implementation. Meanwhile, tensions are intensifying in many parts of the country. The conflict has changed, but it continues. The demobilization of the FARC has created a vacuum in which other armed groups are fighting for power and influence. The treaty with the FARC is only one step into the direction of a lasting peace.

Yeison, 30, sitting next to Julian on the bed, speaks about two FARC groups in Ituango, around five hours of driving from Medellín, frente 18 and 36, who just declared that they took up arms again. ‘I respect their decision, but I have been in the war all my youth. I am not going back,’ Yeison says. A long scar from the cut of a machete runs over his forearm.

Julia Weiß / Hoffnungsträger

Tensions between the different groups can also be felt behind the bars of the country. Here, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas live side by side. In Pedregal, an especially notorious prison, carrying the nickname Guantánamo, violence between them breaks out regularly. In Bellavista, they have agreed on a sort of non-aggression pact, says Verónica López, from the NGO Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners (FCSPP).

Again and again, inmates are passing by and hand Julian money, whisper something in his ear. One time, he grabs a pair of white Adidas sneakers from under his bed and gives them to another men. Together with a representative of the ELN, Julian – or ‘J’, as everyone calls him here – assumes a leading position here in patio 16.

Since the FARC signed the peace accord with the government in 2016, the ELN is now the biggest active rebel group. Exact numbers, how many heads the group counts in total, don’t exist. Estimates believe it to be around 2000 to 2500 combatants and 7000 to 10000 further civil members. Around 700 more are in the country’s prisons, 22 of them in Bellavista.

Currently, the group is negotiating with the government. And time might be running out – with 39.1 per cent, right wing candidate Iván Duque secured most votes in the presidential elections on 27 May, followed by left wing competitor Gustavo Petro with 25.1 per cent. The run-off election will take place on 17 June – a decisive date for the country’s future, as the two represent opposite directions in the peace process: While Duque is calling for harsher punishments for the guerrillas, Petro stands for a conciliatory course. Should Duque become Colombia’s new president, chances for a quick agreement with the ELN are diminishing.

Julia Weiß / Hoffnungsträger

In any case, they want to continue negotiations, says a leading representative of the ELN, who wants to stay anonymous. He is locked in separate part of the jail Bellavista a few doors further. This part is similar to a shared flat, iron bars are nowhere to be seen. There is a kitchen, an office, at the walls are decorated with pictures of their idols, such as Che Guevara. This is where the higher ranks of the ELN are locked in, six people at the moment. They have internet access, are studying online – for example psychology or philosophy – and are taking part in the peace negotiations with the government from in here. Doing so, they are closely monitoring the implementation process of the treaty with the FARC – and are disappointed. Up to now, the state has only implemented around 15 per cent of its promises and the security of former fighters is not guaranteed, they say. Since November 2016, more than 50 FARC members have already been murdered by different armed groups, after they laid down their weapons. ‘As long as we have to fear for our life, we will not give up arms,’ an ELN member says. ‘We want peace. But only if it comes with a profound change of this unequal country,’ another one adds. However, the negotiations don’t go very well. Contrary to the negotiations with the FARC, the talks with the ELN are kept low profile: the public is not involved. Nevertheless, the political prisoners of both groups want to take part in shaping the peace process as well as they can from here – much will depend on the outcome of 17 June.

Meanwhile in patio 16, where Julian and Yeison are, dozens young men are standing in the court yard and curiously turn around when visitors enter. On the opposite side, some stairs lead to the first floor, where the cells are located. Some men are in front, they are guarding the corridor 24/7, in order to warn everyone in case the prison guards would enter. Mattresses are tied to the bars of the cells. At night all they will be put side by side along the corridor, so that everyone can find a spot to lie down – comparably luxurious circumstances here in Bellavista, which is due to the support of the NGOs Hoffnungsträger, PFC and FCSPP, as well as the high level of self-organization of its inmates. In other parts of this jail, corridors are so packed that people have to take turns to sleep. While it offers a capacity for 1800 inmates, currently there are around 3100. At one point during the last year the count reached a peak of 7000 inmates at Bellavista, Raul Gonzalo Garcia Jaramillo, the director of the prison says.

In the most crowded parts of this prison, people have to pay criminal gangs for nearly everything they want to do, including stepping outside into the courtyard or lying down to sleep. There is not enough food for everyone – or it is not prepared well, at times meat is served raw and potatoes uncooked – and health care is poor, the right medication is often not available. ‘Moreover, many inmates are consuming drugs, that complicates living together even further,’ López says.

Here in the part with the political prisoners, taking drugs is forbidden. A poster with 17 rules is put up on the wall next to the entrance: No drugs, no stealing, no loud television or radio watching after 10 o‘clock, respect for each other.

The political prisoners are used to strict structures and have agreed on discipline here in jail. ‘We organized ourselves in a similar manner as back in the mountains,’ Jesus Emilio from the ELN says: ‘If we lose our hope, we are lost.’ The heavy gate snaps in.

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