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Latin American Prisons

[PLN readers have read as we have regularly reported on the state of the U.S. prison system and its many abuses and faults. You may wonder, "how are things in prisons elsewhere?", well we wondered about this too. In future issues of PLN we hope to bring you articles on the prison systems of other countries, especially the capitalist countries who rely on prison as a means of social control. In most cases we find the similarities to the U.S. model are greater than the differences. The following was edited for length and translated by myself from Brecha, an Uruguayan weekly newspaper. Paul Wright.]

On paper at least, Latin American countries acknowledge that prisons are not to torment and that prisons should seek the re-education of the convicted and assure their aptitude for work and deter them from crime. Reality does not conform to these good intentions. A report by Dario Brenman for Brecha - from Argentina - and materials compiled by the editorial staff allow an approximation of a sub-world that is neither foreign nor far.

In Latin American prisons there is a readily proven common denominator: close to 90% of the prisoners come from sectors of critical poverty and social marginalization. The majority come from the big urban conglomerations and the mass media takes care of depicting them as the most violent and dangerous criminals.

Needless to say, for current criminology, that crime which can happen at any moment is of the sixteenth order. The crimes that really matter, and which exist in all the Latin American countries, and even throughout the world, are financial frauds which originate on the red carpets of the ministries, the transnational corporations, and the banks. These are the aspects of crime which prioritize the worries of criminologists and penologists as they take into account the fact that the crimes of misery - which take so many people into the region's prisons - are a consequence of, or originate in, these illicit crimes. Elias Newman, an Argentine criminologist, states that: "it's always the same people in this continent's prisons; the years go by and it seems like I'm seeing the sons of the ones who were here before and the fathers of those who will come later."

Mexico is the Latin American nation with the most prisons: 485 for a population of 82 million inhabitants. Specialists in that country claim that: "The prison apparatus constitutes a big industry from which many people live." With more irony than candor they maintain: "If crime didn't exist many more people would be out of work." Mexico has more prisons that all the other countries combined.

Without very precise data, it is known that the prison structure of Brazil is atrocious. According to Flavio Borges D'urso, a government official: "In Sao Paulo alone there are nearly 8,000 prisoners crammed into Carandiru Penitentiary. Throughout the country there are close to 110,000 prisoners in 47,000 cells. The disproportion worsens according to region, where in the southeast there are more than 3 prisoners per cell and the deficit is greater still because there are another 300,000 convicted prisoners without any cells whatsoever." One solution to overcrowding comes from the prisoners themselves who play Russian roulette, and the dead have escaped any type of statistical control (the other control, that of the authorities, simply doesn't exist.)

Human rights activists recently mobilized due to the outcry over a death in Lurigancho prison, in Peru, the same one in which a massacre of Senderista prisoners took place in June of 1986. The warden's first reaction was to the deny the death had occurred, finally he admitted it. The corpse was still in the cell it had occupied in life, covered with garbage by its companions. And not only that body turned up. Investigators found other skeletons of prisoners that had never been removed from their cells. The recent confrontations between the government and the prisoners of the Shining Path in the Canto Grande maximum security prison, which left at least 23 dead and 58 wounded, show the type of perversions that reign in the Peruvian prison system.

In any case, the Latin American prisons seem to imitate the United States model in which a definite selectivity is applied in which only Blacks and legal or illegal immigrants (generally Spanish speaking) are the ones who wind up in prison. The repressive politics in the Latin American countries has not had a strong response beyond sporadic riots when conditions are intolerable.

The timid and inconsequential efforts to change this situation have not only been unable to reproduce themselves, they have all ended, for various reasons, in failure. One case is that of the open prison in Bragado, in Buenos Aires province, which failed due to political problems. Another in Mendoza (Argentina), closed in 1981 after 11 years, with 163 prisoners capable of sustaining itself and supplying food to other prisons. Other open prisons in San Pablo and Rio Preto, Brazil, became more and more repressive, until their closure due to high drug use.

Los Espejos, Bolivia

Very close to Santa Cruz, in Bolivia, was Los Espejos, which the authorities said functioned as "a farm for the rehabilitation of prisoners." It was directed by a police colonel with 15 agents which seemed sufficient to control the 110 to 150 prisoners, most of them common criminals, "pitiyeros" (marijuana smokers) and undocumented minors the police detained on roads and highways.

Over the years allegations were made of bad treatment, forced labor and deaths. It was also said that Colonel Camacho, the warden, had a ranch near the prison and there he sold everything the prisoners produced for his own profit. During the harvest season he would rent out prisoners for 2 Bolivian pesos a piece, per day, "for the prisoners upkeep."

In 1989, the Center of Judicial Studies for Social Investigation gathered a group of forensics experts, and an American, Clyde Snow, to investigate Los Espejos. There was a lack of political support so the group went to the prison farm claiming to be criminal lawyers studying the Latin American prison system. The only way to enter Los Espejos, they said, was under a false identity, then verify everything they could and later obtain the necessary support from La Paz (the capital).

With hidden recorders they took testimony that corroborated the allegations and which, in addition, spoke of a clandestine cemetery called "the plantation." The Argentine forensic doctor who directed the investigation recalls that "the minors as well as the adults were dressed in rags and barefoot and even in front of us they were clubbed and beaten by the guards. There they were forced to work from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening. The first visit let us observe the place but we couldn't do any excavations yet because we lacked political support. We felt that the government was an accomplice to what was happening at Los Espejos because the abuses were continuous."

His relationship with Colonel Camacho broke down when they asked him about the cemetery. "What cemetery", he replied very seriously, "there's nothing like that here." After more insistent questioning he gave in. The experts estimated there were close to 50 graves. Camacho argued all had died of natural causes. In the following days the exhumations (all of the cadavers were anonymous because no one knew the names of the dead and Los Espejos lacked records of who came in and who left) revealed that some had bullet wounds in their skulls and broken ribs from beatings. When this accumulation of evidence made Camacho's position unsustainable he chose to free all the prisoners, gave them 5 Bolivian pesos and told them to leave "right away". After 2 years, the investigatons learned that in February of 1991, 12 people were arrested, including Camacho. The prison was closed and police delivered it to the Red Cross.

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