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Prison Uprisings Sweep Columbia

A large number of prison uprisings and breakouts occurred throughout Colombia in the first quarter of 1997. On January 5, eighteen prisoners escaped from the prison in Arauca. On January 12, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia broke 39 prisoners out of the Caloto prison in southwestern Columbia. The same day in Soacha, near Bogota, 19 prisoners escaped, and the next day six prisoners escaped from Roldanillo prison in the southwest. On January 27, 400 prisoners began a hunger strike at Picalena prison in central Columbia.

On February 18, in the southern city of Florencia, 11 accused rebels escaped from prison. On February 26, a truck transporting 38 prisoners in Medellin was attacked and the prisoners freed. On February 26, Valledupar prisoners burned the prison's administrative offices, the storage room and the files.

On March 25, 2,800 prisoners in Bogota's maximum security Modelo Prison seized control of two cellblocks and negotiated an agreement on their demands.

On April 3, 1997, a group of prisoners seized control of the La Judicial prison in Valledupar in northern Columbia. Four guards were killed and three were injured in the initial clashes; prisoners seized 16 or 17 hostages, most of them guards. The prisoners were heavily armed with rifles, revolvers and grenades taken from the guards.

The leaders of the uprising were reportedly demanding the release of 10 prisoners, improvement in living conditions at the prison and the possibility of asylum in Cuba. One of the prisoner leaders, however, told a radio station that the prisoners were not demanding their release or asylum in Cuba, and denied that they were demanding two helicopters and other escape gear. He said they were only seeking to improve prison conditions.

All 1,200 prisoners at the Modelo Prison in Bucaramanga (northeastern Columbia) began a hunger strike on April 7 to protest bad food, unhealthy conditions, overcrowding, the system of "faceless justice" and the militarization of the prison. The prisoners held protest signs up on the rooftops of the facility, which was built to house 600.

On April 9, after authorities say they discovered an escape tunnel leading from the Bucaramanga prison, prisoners threw rocks at guards, and shots were heard from inside the prison. One prisoner was wounded and at least one killed.

Authorities say they regained control of all but one "patio" [section] of the prison. The prisoners were reportedly getting support from snipers shooting from the rooftops of nearby buildings. Some of the prisoners were said to be chanting slogans of the National Liberation Army and Popular Liberation Army rebel groups. It was the third protest at the Bucaramanga prison in the first four montns of 1997.

The 60 prisoners at El Buen Pastor women's prison in the northern coastal city of Barranquilla seized 14 hostages on April 9 to protest the politically motivated dismissal of prison director Angela Maria Arevalo Restrepo. The women prisoners praised Arevalo's efforts to solve problems of food, medical service and living conditions in the prison.

The mayor of Barranquilla insisted that Arevalo "resigned for personal reasons." A peaceful end to the action was negotiated, and all the hostages -- including Arevalo -- were freed unharmed.

[Excerpted from the Colombia Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1997. Subscriptions (4 issues) are: US$12.50 for student/low income, US$25 for individuals and non-profits, US$50 for institutions. Send to: Colombia Bulletin; c/o CSN; P.O. Box 1505; Madison, Wl 53701.]

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