Getting into Colombia’s top security jail

March 6, 2008

Contacts are often made at the bar after a few stiff drinks (well, that’s what I tell myself) but in this case, it started on the golf course.
I’d promised The Financial Times to get an interview with any one of Colombia’s notorious ex-paramilitary warlords who were in jail.
“That would be gold dust,” said an FT editor.
After speaking to the editor, my immediate reaction was – how the hell am I going to get into that prison?

Gaining entry into Itagüí, one of Colombia’s maximum security jails, is not such an easy task. The warlords only speak to journalists when they want to and foreign press permits are not easy to come by. The way in, is to be personally invited by one of the paramilitary chiefs.
One Sunday my husband returns home after playing golf at one of the dozens of country clubs in Bogotá, where can you usually bump into the country’s movers and shakers unwinding at the weekend.
“I’ve just played a round of golf with one of the lawyers who’s defending several of the paramilitary bosses. He says he’ll get you any interview you want,” he nonchalantly declares.

The lawyer turns out to be a big fish and has a direct line with some of the top ex-paramilitary commanders. Just the contact I needed. He arranges for his driver to meet me at Medellin airport, from where it’s about an hour’s drive to Itaguii prison. The jail houses Colombia’s most wanted, including top guerrilla commanders, paramilitary bosses and drug barons.
I had been given few instructions. Just turn up at the prison before midday and you’ll get in no problem, the lawyer said. Sounded too good to be true. He says my name will be on the list of visitors, and gives me the name of an inmate that I’m to say I’m visiting. I’m going in as his “friend”. The inmate will then put me in contact with one of the paramilitary chiefs who is expecting my visit.
I later learn that the inmate is an ex-paramilitary, alias the “the account”, who controlled paramilitary finances and bought arms from Bulgaria in exchange for cocaine during the 1990’s.

I join a queue at the prison gates. Families with children and women carrying bags of food and holding babies in arms are patiently waiting to get in. I later realize that because of security regulations, no-one is wearing proper shoes and everyone is in flip flops. I’ve got my Nikes on and I feel out of place.
At the first security checkpoint, I meet an Italian lawyer dressed in an expensive ‘Our man in Havana’ suit who is having trouble getting in to see his client who is an ex-paramilitary chief. I don’t get much hope from that.
My name is not on the visitors list. I’m not that surprised. But I insist and wait for about an hour.

The guard is in a good mood and accommodating. He lets me enter the main part of the prison. I then make it past another three checkpoints and metal detectors along a steep hill. So far so good. I cross the final checkpoint and enter a small courtyard. I think I’ve made it through.
A man dressed in casual clothes approaches.
“How can I help you miss?,” he asks with a friendly smile.
“I’m here to see Mr….”,
“And how to do you know this man?”
“Well, you know it’s a long story,” I reply.
“I’ve got time, tell me this long story.”
I begin rambling and my Spanish rapidly starts to deteriorate.
“We met in a bar, we became friends, and now I’m visiting him today”. (I’m annoyed with myself for not having rehearsed a script beforehand).

This friendly man turns out to be the new prisoner governor and he’s keen to play by the rules. Not surprisingly, he’s not buying my tenuous story.
“Miss, all press passes are issued in Bogotá after requesting formal permission in a letter stating the purpose of your visit,” he explains.
“But I’m not the foreign press, I’m just here to visit a friend,” I insist.
“I suggest you contact the prison press office in Bogotá and then we can help you.”
“Let me accompany you to the entrance gates, I’m going there myself just now,” he said in the most charming way.

So I was politely escorted out of the prison.
I phone my contact. He assures me that I can get in tomorrow and that he’ll send someone to escort me in.
An unassuming, Mr average kind of guy (they usually are) with at least 5 mobile phones in his pocket turns up the next day to meet me. He’s the political advisor to the paramilitaries.
He asks me to wait outside the jail while he goes in to make sure I’m on the list. I wait and wait and watch the constant flow of traffic go in and out of the prison. Four hours later he comes out and says I can’t go in today because family visiting hours are over. Another day lost and I’m still not in. My chaperone into the jail promises me that I’ll get in tomorrow.

So the next day I arrive at the prison early and wait. He finally shows up three hours later.
“No problem today, I’ve made some calls. They’re expecting you. Best not to talk too much when going through. If anyone asks say you’re coming in with me as a helper in our ‘foundation’. (I have no idea what he’s talking about but smile and nod).
With him as my guide, I breeze past security and am barely frisked.

Being 6 months pregnant at the time, the male prisoner guards treat me as a curious anomaly and with particular care and great respect.
It appears that the ex-paramilitaries have been working the phone and the prison governor is nowhere in sight. No questions asked here, it’s been an easy passage through.
I still have no idea which paramilitary chief I’m going to see, there are dozens of them in the same prison block. I’m just told I’m going to see one of the bosses.
I’m shown into a tucked away inner courtyard within the prison block walls. It’s known as the “annex” and is reserved for the most special and politically sensitive of inmates.

The infamous Don Berna is waiting for me in his pleasant den. He’s been associated with a bit of everything throughout his checkered past, including drug trafficking and massacres.
Don Berna has prepared for the interview and has some notes at hand. He’s keen to get his message across. I’m served coffee by his assistant. In a kitchen, a woman is preparing food and the smell of a tasty lunch wafts through this so-called prison cell.
I breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve finally made it in.