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Colombian Rebels Attack Prisons, 140 Prisoners Flee

Prison escapes are common in Colombia. Prisoners often buy the help of guards and administrators and are often able to outgun their jailers. In the case that follows they had concerted help from the outside. It is not the first time that rebels outside have used such tactics to free their imprisoned comrades.

On the night of June 23, 2001, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP), Latin America's largest and oldest insurgent force, attacked La Picota prison in Bogota, blowing out a security wall from inside the prison with dynamite. There was then a prolonged exchange of fire with the prison authorities during which more than 140 prisoners fled as the FARC provided cover with gunfire. Five escaped prisoners were killed by guards and at least 36 of the escapees were recaptured alive after a massive security operation in the surrounding area.

Prison director Fabio Campos said munitions experts deactivated a vehicle loaded with dynamite parked near the prison. One police agent and at least 12 prisoners were wounded. At least 19 of the escapees are FARC members. According to a communique issued on June 27 by the General Staff of the "Antonio Narino Urban Network" of the FARC-EP's Eastern Bloc, two soldiers and four police agents were also killed in the assault on La Picota. The communique said that among the five prisoners killed were FARC members Roberto Ahumada Aldana and Alexander Torres Torres.

On June 24 th , the day after the attack, the FARC claimed responsibility for the breakout, and FARC second-in-command Jorge Briceno (alias Mono Jojoy) told reporters that the FARC would continue to aid its members in their attempts to escape from prison throughout the country; similar actions would continue until the government frees all imprisoned FARC members.

"Our objective is to get FARC prisoners out of all the nation's prisons because the government is refusing to exchange prisoners," Briceno said. "We are forced to free them as best we can," he added, speaking from the demilitarized zone in southern Colombia where negotiations between the FARC and the government are being held. As of June 30, the FARC had released 359 captured soldiers and police agents as part of a negotiated agreement with the government in which 11 sick rebels were freed from prison. The FARC is still holding 42 mid-ranking police and army officers.

On June 27 more than 30 rebels from Colombia's second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), broke into a jail in northwest Colombia and kidnaped five prisoners belonging to the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC). Among the five prisoners freed were three women imprisoned for homicide and bearing arms. The rebels then retreated to a mountain area near the municipality of Bagre, 570 kms north of Bogotá.

A month later, the FARC again freed prisoners, this time from the jail in Bolivar, a small town in southwestern Colombia. Seventy three were freed. Of these, twelve returned of their own volition. It is likely these were social rather than political prisoners; Colombian law provides that prisoners who return within 72 hours of a prison break will not be punished.

Colombia has been plagued for 37 years by a civil war pitting leftist rebel groups against the government and paramilitary forces like the AUC. The violence of this conflict has brought death to nearly 40,000 people in the past decade. Human rights groups place the blame for most of these deaths at the doorstep of the Colombian government. The government, in turn, holds the AUC responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 civilians in the year 2000 alone. Most of these were the victims, not of individual murders, but of wholesale massacres by the AUC.

Sources: Weekly News Update on the Americas; AFP, UPI, Xinhua, from the Colombia Labor Monitor (CLM-NEWS) ,Seattle Times.

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