The growing mass of Colombian political prisoners has gained less international attention than the murdered and “disappeared,” than millions displaced from their land, than epidemic spying and fear-mongering.

That may be changing. Fifty lawyers with the Second International Caravan of Jurists were denied entry into Colombian prisons last August. In November 1,000 British academicians wrote President Juan Manuel Santos on behalf of political prisoner Miguel Angel Beltran, being held, they said, “for his political opinions rather than for any crime.” British parliamentarians are demanding Beltran’s release and that of four other prisoners.

The story of paramilitary commander Jorge Iván Laverde Zapata poses an attention – grabbing contradiction. At his recent trial, he admitted to ordering 4000 civilians killed, arranging for massacres, and murdering 100 people himself.  However, the 40-year jail term he earned morphed automatically into an eight year sentence. Under the government’s “Justice and Peace Law,” paramilitary leaders receive light sentences in return for demobilizing troops and confessing.

Many others, by contrast, go to jail for years without trial for the crime of political dissent. The British Justice for Colombia group catalogues the examples of nine recently released prisoners. Among them were five unionists, two peasant organizers, one indigenous leader, and a human rights worker. Their jail terms ranged from six months to three years. Only one was tried.

Colombia’s prison population exceeded 70,000 in 2006, when 22,000 were awaiting trial, according to an Organization of American States survey. Current estimates place political prisoners at 7,500, including captured FARC insurgents. “Delay in the processing of legal cases of political prisoners is notorious,” the OAS reports. Yet military officers accused of extra-judicial executions have left jail after three months, taking advantage of a legal requirement that all evidence and charges be presented within that time. That rule is ignored when it comes to political prisoners.

Authorities are accusing most political prisoners of rebellion and terrorism, specifically of ties to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As a result of false accusations, persecution, and the prospect of prison, fear and intimidation have mounted. The government has exploited computers seized at a FARC encampment in Ecuador raided by its military on March 1, 2008. Emails supposedly derived from those computers have been used to justify rounding up peace activists and political opponents. The government claims the emails document links to the FARC used to justify rounding up peace activists and political opponents. A high placed police witness has questioned the authenticity of the computer material.

James Jordan, writing on Narco-News, notes that 10 years ago under Plan Colombia, Washington began funding the construction of 11 new prisons to accommodate 24,000 more prisoners. At La Tramacua, the first prison to open, water – “a trickle coming out of a pipe” – is limited to 10 minutes a day. Sanitation is primitive, with “spoiled food found to contain fecal matter.” Torture and prisoner abuse are rampant.

In a personal communication, Jordan indicates the two governments “are engaged in an effort to attack, marginalize, intimidate and destroy a peace process in Colombia based on dialogue involving all major parties.” Jordan suggests recent Chilean and U.S. government threats against their own Colombia solidarity activists represent a joint effort to extend the Colombian war against dissent beyond its borders.  

Miguel Angel Beltran Villegas was engaged in post-doctoral studies in Mexico City, when authorities there seized him on May 22, 2009. His immediate transfer to Colombia was fraught with torture and legal irregularities. Sociologist Beltran’s academic studies have focused on the history of popular struggle in Latin American. A judicial hearing on November 25 recessed due to missing evidence.

Liliana Obando, teacher, graduate student, and mother of two served as human rights director for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural worker. Much of the support following her imprisonment on August 8th 2008 comes from friends she made on worldwide fundraising tours for Fensuagro. Court authorities cut short a November 12 hearing for lack of crucial defense testimony.

David Ravelo, Communist Party leader and head of the CREDHOS human rights group, is a veteran opposition figure in Barrancabermeja. After his arrest on September 14, Ravelo was transferred to a Bogota prison under anti-terrorism statutes. The government used a discredited paramilitary chieftain’s accusations against him as rationale. 

Other political prisoners are worth noting:

Arrested November 15, 2008 Carmelo Agamez Berrío headed the Sucre office of the human rights group Movement for Victims of State Crimes. He had accused a local official of mismanaging public funds. 

Rosalba Gaviria Toro of Armenia is a trade unionist, community leader and human rights campaigner. She was arrested on March 9, 2009. The government says she’s a “guerrilla” and “terrorist.”

As president of his local human rights committee, Jose Samuel Rojas Mora organized community political education classes. Prior to his arrest on September 10, 2010, the local Army commander harassed him. He too is identified as a guerrilla collaborator. 

Lawyer Carolina Rubio Esguerra, was arrested and jailed on November 16, 2010 in Bucaramanga. She is a well-known advocate for political prisoners and officer of the large umbrella human rights coalition, the “Colombian, European, U.S Coordinating Group.” Rubio, eight months pregnant, was released two days later to house arrest.   

La Tramacua prisoner Felix Roberto Sanabria was imprisoned in 2003. He began a hunger strike on September 17, 2010, demanding that prison authorities separate political prisoners from common criminals and paramilitary inmates.

A letter Miguel Angel Beltran wrote his family from jail is a plea for our solidarity. He – and one assumes, many of his counterparts – “wants to see flourish in our homeland a new Colombia, where children no longer have to weep over the absence of parents killed in the war, where the peasant has a little land and the technical help to work it, where education, health care, and housing is prioritized as a right and not the privilege of a few, where those of us exercising critical thought are not treated as terrorists.”



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.