War zone extends to Colombian prisons

For Colombian governments fighting a civil war, prisons are a tool of repression. Solidarity events for Colombia's 9,000 political prisoners took place in October, 2013. Organizers maintain Colombia is rife with "social and political violence where social protest is repressed and criminalized." Critic Azalea Robles reports 90 percent of political prisoners "are civilians jailed through their political activity ... unionists, environmentalists, teachers, agrarian leaders, academic critics ... and defenders of human rights.

Negotiators at peace talks in Cuba between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are discussing political prisoners as part of their current agenda item, which is political participation. The imprisonment of two high profile veterans in the fight for agrarian and human rights illustrates the connection between arbitrary incarcerations and conditions of internal war.

David Ravelo led the political fight In the Barrancabermeja area against violent paramilitaries hired by big landowners and other wealthy interests to remove small farmers from land they were seeking. Having entered prison on September 14, 2010, he is serving an 18- year sentence on false charges of participating in a 1991 murder. Huber Ballesteros is vice president of the Fensuagro labor federation, Colombia's largest farm workers' union. His arrest on August 25, 2013 came early during the course of a nationwide National Agrarian Strike for which he was a spokesperson.

Ravelo's conviction rested on an accusation made by a jailed paramilitary chieftain in return for a shortened sentence. Ravelo's appeal focuses on a crime committed by his prosecutor in 1991. William Pacheco Granados, a police lieutenant then, participated in the forced disappearance of an individual. The Colombian military jailed him for the crime. Ravelo's lawyers now cite laws barring criminals from serving as prosecutor. Yet Pacheco Granados is still on the job.  

Ravelo has received awards for defending human rights. International unions, United Nations officials, U.K lawyers and parliamentarian, and human rights groups have protested judicial irregularities in his case and demanded his release. International delegations have visited him in prison.

At a large gathering in Bogota on the third anniversary of Ravelo's arrest, speakers praised Ravelo's dedication to "Colombia's poor and humble" and his leadership of the Credhos human rights group. Voz newspaper director Carlos Lozano honored Ravelo as "a distinguished leader of the Communist Party," who, along with those he defended, faced "dungeons, intimidations, displacements, and death threats."

Ravelo fought on behalf of Colombians displaced from land. On a recent solidarity visit to Catatumbo Department, U.S. lawyer Dan Kovalik heard testimony describing rural terror attacks at the hands of soldiers and paramilitaries who enforce corporate land takeovers. The Colombian military, police, prison construction projects and, indirectly, paramilitaries all benefit from U.S. funding.

Huber Ballesteros faces charges of rebellion and supporting terrorists. In addition to his participation with the Fensuagro union, Ballesteros is a leader of the Patriotic March coalition movement, also part of the agrarian reform movement. An international solidarity campaign is demanding Ballesteros' freedom.

Hyper concentration of land has fueled the FARC's insurgency since its beginning in 1964, and the first agenda item of the Havana peace talks was agrarian rights. Although negotiators reached agreement on land issues several months ago, the arrest of Huber Ballesteros during the agrarian strike strongly suggests struggles over land are not over. That's the impression gained also from sentences handed down recently to three  other jailed Fensuagro leaders.

Ballesteros' political participation has moved now to inside prison. He wrote the article "Privatization of justice and merchandizing of prisons" that appeared in early October. "To palliate its grave situation," he observed, "the crisis--ridden capitalist system uses the economic model of neo-liberalism to penetrate every sphere of society." The Colombian government "enacted laws that privatized the justice [system] and converted prisons into commercial establishments."

Ballesteros condemns "creation of new crimes with the purpose of overfilling prisons and [thereby] generating new 'clients' for private investment." He objects to "implementation of North American methods of justice, prisons, and prison operations."

Ballesteros' concern is for all prisoners in Colombia. "In this dance of the millions," he states, "we on the inside are the ones hurting. We suffer from corruption at all levels." The fallout, one observer explains, includes prisoner deaths due to bad quality medical care, rotten or contaminated food, and beatings.  The prison population is up 30 percent over three years. Some 40,000 people are in prison without benefit of a trial.   

The cases of Ravelo and Ballesteros are equivalent to a laboratory demonstration on skewed political participation. The two prisoners intervened in a class-divided society to defend victims of land- hungry corporations and oligarchs. And Ballesteros spoke up for masses of prisoners in the grasp of latter-day slave masters and their drivers.