Interview of framed ex-prisoner awaiting trial by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
(Reading time: 8 mins.)
In June 2017 a bomb exploded in the Centro Andino shopping centre in the north of Bogotá, Colombia, cutting down three people. A few days later the police arrested ten youths for their supposed participation in the attack, amongst them Lina Jiménez, an arts student, whose photo went viral. These youths all had something in common and it wasn’t their participation in the attack but rather that they were all friends.
We all met in the university, as we studied together. Some of us studied Law, Politics and others Sociology. I met some of them in optional classes were we coincided. We had a common position on the defence of human rights and the student movement, we met in one or other coffee shops, assemblies that took place in various parts of the university.
Friends to the point that six of them were arrested together a few days after the attack whilst on holidays in the El Espinal area. The precise moment she was arrested was the first time that Lina became aware that the Prosecutor had issued an arrest warrant for her.
I was on holiday in El Espinal and we were going to meet up in a spa resort. In El Espinal there are some festivals for Saint John’s and Saint Peter’s day and that is why we were there and I was in a taxi when various cars surrounded us and stopped us. Then they took me out of the car and officers from the Special Operations Group (GOES) and the Judicial Investigative Police (SIJIN) read out the arrest warrant. They never showed it to me or read me my rights.
It wasn’t just any order. The weaker the State’s case the more need it has to make it appear solid and to show the dangerousness of the detainees.
We were taken to the main police station in El Espinal. There were loads of them, all those that took part in the operation. Later on, one of the police officers who was guarding us said that they had around 1,200 officers involved in our capture in El Espinal. It was basically full of police officers.
We don’t know whether the figure of 1,200 officers is correct or not, but there is no doubt it was an enormous operation. I asked her jokingly whether such a disproportionate and unnecessary deployment made her feel important. She laughed and said no
That didn’t make me feel important, what made me feel important was the flight, as they brought us in a plane from El Espinal to Bogotá. They took us to the police station, searched us, took our prints and whatnot. They never said it was for terrorism. I was told it was for conspiracy, we were only told it was for terrorism when we got to Bogotá- They took us out of the station well guarded with motorbikes, cars, loads of officers and they took us from Flandes airport to Catam [Military Airport].
As Lina herself acknowledges such an operation was a bad omen for any detainee, even when innocent. When they took her to the airport she knew nothing good could come of it, that the State was going all out against her and would do everything possible to show results in the case and they charged her with terrorism, conspiracy, homicide and attempted homicide with a possible sentence of 60 years.
When we were being taken to the airport in Flandes, I said to myself, this thing is not so that they invalidate our arrest. If they are setting up such an operation to get some people on holidays, they are definitely not going to let us go. Regardless of whether we did it or not, these people are going to convict us. To see how they organised the truth, leaves you feeling powerless.
In fact, later she found out when she could read the press that they had already convicted her, that both state functionaries and the press had declared that the guilty ones had been captured. They published identikit pictures of some of those arrested that matched them so neatly they seemed to be photos, but they did not match the statements from the witnesses. The identikit photos had been prepared days before the attack.
Little did Lina know when she was arrested the legally doubtful manoeuvres the State would resort to, re-arresting her three times in contravention of court orders to free her. The State sought out judges in their pocket to legalise what was illegal and to justify her re-arrest and even open up another slightly different case against her. Amongst the manoeuvres of state was the harassment of the relatives and attempts made to force them to give information or testify against other detainees.
The strategy did not work when it came to the relatives, but one of the detainees, Natalia Trujillo, could not withstand captivity and the pressure on her and handed herself over to the State, reaching an agreement with the Prosecutor which consisted in her not serving any time in exchange for her false testimony against her friends and fellow students. It was a potentially serious blow in the legal case, but it was also a hard knock in personal terms. You could understand bitterness in a case like this, but when Lina speaks of her former cell mate, there is no trace in her voice, but rather of pain and also an understanding of how a person could break like that.
You feel enormous hurt, you just don’t expect that to happen, especially as we went through this process together, together we experienced what was happening, together we felt the same pressure from the State and what happened to her is sort of like that. We all have different ways of dealing psychologically with this type of severe pressure. It is no secret that the State seeks to weave its own truth and as part of doing so it resorts to these type of situations, to push people to their physical and psychological limits that they end up saying things that are not true. It was really hurtful.
Natalia suffered the legal process for more than two years, but in August 2019 she turned up testifying against Lina and other people linked to the case.
As I said, we don’t all have the same capacity and I can’t say that I didn’t feel pain nor exhaustion during all of this process, because it was really severe and there are days you just don’t want to move an inch. I believe in the power of love and I really believe that solidarity also picks you up and saves you from many things. When you are down the other person picks you up and you pick them up, there are series of bonds which are built and that pushes you forward, but we don’t all have the same capacity to say ‘right I can take a little more of this’.
Perhaps, Lina was stronger and she showed that in a photo that went viral. She is seen with her hands tied behind her back leaning in towards a journalist, seething and shouting. I asked her about that photo, as in person she is nothing like that, but an arrest is not a normal situation for anyone.
We were in the station in Puente Aranda and it has to be said that it is a horrible place. It was a complicated situation, we had nowhere to sleep. I hadn’t a clue about the hearing to legalise our arrest, that was explained to me the next day and we were heavily guarded. We left Puente Aranda in an armoured car with police vehicles surrounding it. We got there and the armoured car took a while in getting us out. When I got there I saw relatives and some friends crying, I could see their deep pain in the midst of all the rage and impotence and they were very quiet. I felt the need to say it wasn’t true, that this was about something else.
Of course, they had told me ‘You’re to keep your mouth shut’ and in that moment I felt I couldn’t let this go… You feel a rage for your own life, but also seeing your family subjected to such complex situations, that the police push them around. We were walking and there was a lot of press there and we were guarded by the police and they didn’t want us to talk. So as soon as I got down out of the armoured car I started shouting that this was a judicial false positive that this had got to do with electoral interests at the time, that is was part of the Uribista strategy. I started shouting that and that photo was taken when I was going up the stairs and a journalist from City TV came up to me and I was really upset as whilst I was shouting a policeman tried to push back the journalists and he shouted at me ‘shut up, shut up, don’t say anything!’ Obviously that was like winding me up more. Looking back on it, it would have been very different had we remained silent.
And that is certainly the case. In the entire process none of those arrested bowed their heads, they have even appeared in videos from the jail, some have written articles and others were even spokespersons for prisoners in prison protests. Unjustly detained, but not defeated.
All prisons try to crush the individual, to break them, to take away their dignity, their sense of being alive. Colombia’s prisons are no different in this matter and in fact various problems such as overcrowding and poor health and educational services make the situation worse still. Being a political prisoner can be dangerous, but when the numbers allow for it, being part of a prisoners’ collective has its advantages. Lina was taken to the Good Shepherd Prison (Buen Pastor) in Bogotá and following her processing she was placed in the political prisoners’ wing.
It is very interesting, because when we got there, the last political prisoners of the FARC were beginning to leave, we were eight days in the police station and they put the fear of God into us, that ‘you are just posh kids and in the Good Shepherd prison they are going to rob you and attack you.’
But when we go to Wing Six, the political prisoners really surprised us, they had cleaned our cells, clean sheets, everything was organised, they had hot soup, coffee, toilet paper and other things. There were around 34 prisoners from the FARC and the ELN. After a while the FARC prisoners were released and social prisoners began to arrive and it was very different. As it was a high security wing, people connected to the drugs trade began to be put in it. There was a complete change in the atmosphere as their money could be seen, they paid for whiskey to be brought in, which when the political prisoners where there, that didn’t happen. When the social prisoners came, it was different, a huge change.
Although states usually try to treat political prisoners as common criminals, they are not and it can be seen in how they organise in prison and how they relate to the prison authorities. And to form part of a collective had, as Lina saw when she arrived, certain advantages for own safety and well being.
The prisoners had outside support and they reported things, the guards called Wing Six the wing for the complaints as we were always reporting to the Procurator, the Public Defender’s Office etc. The Director consulted the prisoners about how to do certain things. Meetings were held with the Director. This didn’t happen on other wings; they didn’t take the prisoners’ views into account. The political prisoners won a space, these were not concessions from the prison authorities, but rather they were won through protests and even hunger strikes over the years.
But it is not just people like Lina who suffer the effects of judicial frame-ups, but also their families, especially when they are accused of a crime such as the attack on the Centro Andino. The State harasses the relatives and tries to put pressure on them as part of its legal strategy.
There is an enormous pressure put on our families as well as the social stigma. In my case, when I was captured, they were raiding my home at the same time and it was severe as I live on a main avenue and they closed the entire avenue off, there were armoured cars, and at least ten anti-explosives vehicles and a huge number of police officers and everyone was asking, what happened? And since my release, they haven’t stopped following me and taking photos and there is a permanent presence of plainclothes cops.
To her, the case and other processes against other students are state strategies to defeat the social movement and hand down exemplary sentences as a warning to all those who think differently and want to change the country. The legal cases try to break grassroots processes and the detainees themselves. In her case, it didn’t work that well.
To see the misery of this system in the flesh makes you understand and treat this space as another space for political struggle. In the legal process itself and the prison, you see the system so cruelly unmasked because this can only be done by people who have no respect for life, for humanity, for nothing. You feel you have to continue struggling for what you believe in, for life. This system has been in crisis for a long time and I left the prison and we are in a pandemic, we face a very complicated situation which is not far removed from the logic of the system. In this system there are humans who are in the top category and then there are those who are not in any category. And my position and that of my friends in the case, is the type of position that has to be hidden out of view and that is the role of the prison.
You see the State’s aim take shape, to continue suppressing and depleting the movement because, amongst other things that is one of the tools in creating the idea that there has to be an exemplary punishment that has to be handed down and it seeks out the tools to rob people of their humanity.
Although Lina and the others unjustly arrested for the Andino Case are at liberty, the legal case against them continues. It is to be hoped that the judges make a finding in law, as has already happened in the case of Mateo Gutiérrez who was also accused of belonging to the same organisation that supposedly carried out the attack and he managed to demonstrate and prove his innocence. But in Colombia justice limps along and sometimes never gets there.