Saga of Narco-Playboy Shows Weakness of Colombia’s Prison System

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The trail of violence and corruption blazed through Colombia’s prison system by a now-extradited drug trafficker displays the weaknesses of an institution that is trapped between bullets and bribes, and could now be facing dissolution.

The odyssey of Camilo Torres Martinez, alias “Fritanga,” through the Colombian prison system began with a spectacular arrest at his own B-list-celebrity packed wedding on a Caribbean island. After police established that he was not, in fact, dead, as stated by a death certificate issued by a corrupt doctor, he was transferred to La Picota prison in Bogota, one of Colombia’s most high-security institutions.

However, his stay was short. Within a month of his arrival, Fritanga, along with another alleged drug trafficker, Andres Arroyave, alias “La Maquina,” was transferred to Giron prison in Santander after National Prison Institute (INPEC) officials discovered the pair were bribing guards to secure privileges, and hatching an escape plan.

Just months later, the pair were on the move again. First, guards discovered and halted Fritanga’s plans to throw a birthday party, which had included bringing family, friends, enough cake for 30 people, and a professional sound system into the prison. Then, it emerged that Fritanga and La Maquina had offered bribes to six guards to help them escape. One of the guards turned the offer down and informed his bosses, and Fritanga was transferred to a prison in Valledupar, this time without his co-conspirator La Maquina.

Fritanga’s stay in his new home was no less tumultuous. When guards discovered him in possession of a cell phone and a wrench, he threatened to have them all killed.

Blaming his thwarted ambitions on the INPEC hierarchy, Fritanga set out on a campaign to destroy them.

First, he publically accused INPEC Director Gustavo Adolfo Ricaurte of influence-trafficking, after Fritanga apparently heard of a letter in which Ricaurte called on the Justice Minister to speed up the extradition process of several top-level drug traffickers that had been causing trouble in the prisons — among them Fritanga and La Maquina.

Fritanga also trained his sights on the prison system’s deputy director, Pompy Pinzon Baron, whom Fritanga reportedly blamed for his multiple transfers. Even after Fritanga was extradited in April, Pinzon continued to receive word through the prison system that he remained on a death list, receiving messages apparently sent as a parting shot that “[Fritanga] was going to miss [Pinzon] always, and he would carry him in his heart.” In early July, Pinzon resigned his post in fear for his life.

After Torres’ extradition, RCN radio obtained an INPEC report containing details of his behavior as an inmate, which included bringing in an endless stream of women — and Viagra for their visits — luxury food, alcohol, and even an orthopedic mattress.

InSight Crime Analysis

Fritanga’s flashy eccentricities and determined single-mindedness to escape the hardships of prison life offer a dramatic glimpse of the everyday issues facing INPEC, an institution shackled by violence and corruption.

Threats such as those issued against Fritanga’s guards and Pinzon are endemic. In early June, INPEC Director Gustavo Ricaurte said he had received 400 death threats in the preceding weeks.

And the threats are not empty. INPEC officials have repeatedly been targeted and murdered. The most recent case saw alleged guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ambush a convoy transporting several inmates, killing four guards and one prisoner, and injuring four more. While the motive for that attack remains unknown, over the years there have been numerous cases directly linked to guards’ clashes with incarcerated narcos and other powerful criminals. 

However, it is not just violence but also corruption that is endemic in INPEC. The most infamous examples stem from the para-politics wing of La Picota. There, incarcerated politicians, most convicted of ties to paramilitaries, enjoy their own bedrooms, complete with private bathroom, hot water, furniture, cable TV, computer, and internet access. In the public areas, there is a well-equipped gym, games room, garden, massage area and a kitchen, where inmates can prepare their own food brought in from the outside. However, in addition to these INPEC-authorized benefits, for a small bribe, inmates also can bring in whatever they desire, with alcohol and women usually topping the list.

In June, the director of La Picota, Anselmo Escobar, was suspended pending an investigation, following a scandal caused by an imprisoned congressman’s illicit birthday party. It wasn’t the first time. Infamous para-politician Juan Carlos Martinez was transferred out of La Picota after news leaked out of his elaborate birthday bash, which saw 34 guests party all day and into the night. The party was just the latest of a string of prison-related outrages involving Martinez,  including one time when he hired a construction crew to knock through a wall and expand his cell.

Around the same time as Escobar’s resignation, newsweekly Semana obtained an INPEC report that showed how several inmates, among them Martinez, have also secured sentence reductions by fraudulently claiming to have participated in work schemes. The disgraced politicians, who receive a day off their sentence for every two days of work or study, were registered as having put in eight-hour shifts, when actually they’d been outside prison on medical visits or judicial hearings.

Outside of the para-politics wing, conditions in La Picota are horrendous and have recently incited prisoner protests. The inmate population is 232 percent larger than prison capacity, and inmates spill out of the overcrowded cells and are forced to sleep in the corridors and insanitary bathrooms. Water, food, and medical attention are all scarce and have become a privilege rather than a right. 

Corruption is also rampant. According to complaints filed against INPEC, prisoners have to pay to secure a place to sleep, or to obtain one of the scarce work or study placements.

Accusations of corruption have been at the heart of a political campaign to dissolve INPEC. During debates over reforms to Colombia’s penitentiary code, members of Congress floated a proposal to replace INPEC with a new institute of prison guards that answers directly to the Ministry of Defense or the police.

It is difficult to see how replacing INPEC with another institution — most likely with most of the same personnel — would bring an end to the deep-seated issues that are close to fatally undermining the institution. However, it is clear that INPEC in its current form is not fit for purpose.

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