Handcuffed to swing sets, slides and trees, the prisoners say their most serious concern isn’t food or sleeping — it’s where to use the bathroom.
With the city’s criminal processing offices stretched to their breaking point, Bogotá police have been keeping detained criminal suspects in a park in the western neighborhood of La Granja in what legal advocates are calling a massive human rights violation and threat to public safety.
International media took notice of the story last week, but the situation has been going on since the beginning of August, when local prosecutors began sending detained men to a public park near the La Granja detention unit in Engativá, a northwestern sector of Bogotá.
Local officials say they have no other option due to severe overcrowding at the local Immediate Reaction Unit (URI, for its name in Spanish), which is supposed to process people arrested as criminal suspects. Bogotá has six of these offices, which are supposed to streamline the booking process and release people in a timely manner as well as determine whether there is sufficient reason to send a suspect to jail.
The local unit in La Granja has a capacity of 70, but usually holds more than 100 detainees on a given day. This URI, in the western locality of Engativá, receives suspects arrested in a number of Bogotá’s high-traffic areas, including the El Dorado airport, the municipal bus terminal and the TransMilenio public transportation system.
The Engativá unit is not the only one struggling to contain an overwhelming number of detainees. Bogotá’s six URIs have a capacity of 265, but Caracol Radio has reported the centers are currently holding about 500 prisoners — almost twice as many as they should.
In La Granja, this spillover has spread to the nearby park, where prisoners eat lunch, bathe and receive visits from family members, including many mothers that bring lunch to their detained sons. Twelve tents are available for 70,000 pesos (about US$35), and some detainees’ families have pooled money to give the prisoners a place to sleep.
Local residents are concerned about the impact on their quality of life, with parents saying they can no longer take their children to the park and others worrying about the possibility of a violent escape attempt and the impact on public health and hygiene.
Meanwhile, lawyers’ collectives and human rights groups have harshly criticized the practice, calling it a violation of the prisoners’ rights.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Hernando Bocanegra Molina, a lawyer for two suspects held on drug trafficking charges, called the situation “degrading,” and said detainees “can’t be treated as if they were animals.”
Government Secretary Hugo Zárrate has announced that some of the La Granja detainees will be sent to a district jail as a “temporary solution” to the problem of overcrowding at the local unit. This plan will require transferring 450 prisoners from that jail to a national prison in order to clear space for the URI detainees.
The detainee scandal comes at the same time that Bogotá police face accusations of falsifying and inventing charges to fill daily arrest quotas. In an interview last week with Noticias RCN, an official with the city’s Attorney General’s office said police officers often arrest innocent civilians to meet the required number of arrests or drug seizures, sometimes even adding drugs to the amounts taken from suspects in order to have the required quantity.
The lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out that the majority of suspects arrested are let go within 36 hours without any formal charges.
A police officer interviewed for the story supported the official’s accusations, saying that officers will sometimes offer to buy lunch for people who allow themselves to be detained.