Gambling and Booze Party at Colombian Prison Raises Questions About Security

Posted on: October 4, 2022, 07:56h. 

Last updated on: October 4, 2022, 11:37h.

When most people imagine prison life, they don’t picture gambling, liquor, and live music. However, that’s exactly the scene that played out at a prison in Colombia, and lawmakers are screaming for answers.

La Picota prison
A view of the La Picota prison in Bogota, Colombia. A three-day party that included gambling, booze, and live music has the country’s prison system under the microscope. (Image: Colombia Reports)

The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) has launched a preliminary investigation to determine the responsibility of officials and guards at the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC, for its Spanish acronym). This follows an “exotic party” that took place at the Bogotá Metropolitan Prison and Penitentiary Complex’s La Picota facility. It wasn’t a quick-and-dirty affair – the festivities lasted for three days.

The AGO wants to know if anyone within the prison system facilitated the irregular entry of prohibited substances. It also wants an explanation for additional contraband a surprise inspection found after the party came to light.

Good Times Behind Bars

Local media accounts indicate that the prison yard was complete with live music during the festivities. Singer Mono Zabaleta entertained the drug traffickers and other inmates in the pavilion, which was set up with tables, chairs, tents, and whiskey.

The guards were reportedly drunk when they finished their shifts. No one within INPEC’s ranks seemed to care.

The celebration took place in the middle of the commemoration of the Virgen de las Mercedes, the Catholic patron saint of inmates. Somehow, there were prohibited elements, such as imported liquor, cigarettes, and gambling at the party.

La Picota is the temporary home of Colonel Benjamín Núñez, a colonel with the police department in the Colombian department of Suchre. He faces charges of ordering officers to kill three unarmed young men. Núñez arrived at the prison a week before the party.

Former President Andrés Pastrana attributed the incident to Néstor Osuna, Colombia’s Minister of Justice. He directly blamed the official for not maintaining control and order, even though Osuna wasn’t involved.

This isn’t the first time La Picota has been in the spotlight. High-profile prisoners have been able to walk out the gates. One was Carlos Mattos, a corrupt businessman who went out for a walk, protected by union privileges. An investigation implicated a couple of guards. But they remained in place due to union protection.

Another was Jesus Santrich, a high-ranking member of Colombia’s guerilla army, FARC. He walked out of the prison in 2019, but only for a few minutes before police arrested him.

Party Uncovers Luxury Living

After news of the party surfaced, INPEC held a surprise inspection of the prison. What officials found was evidence that prisoners were living the good life when they were supposed to be locked away.

The inspection found 122 cell phones, 30 internet modems, five tablets, three projectors, four smart watches, 11 television decoders, 19 music speaker systems, and more. It also uncovered 184 bottles of liquor, including whiskey, tequila, wine, and champagne, as well as $400K in cash.

Additional items were seized that, despite not being restricted, were found in prohibited places, including some inmate cells. Among these were large televisions, 17 ice chests, 25 electric stoves, five refrigerators, three coffee makers, nine blenders, a DVD player, 16 sandwich makers, and nine pressure cookers.

In response to the scandal, Osuna didn’t hesitate to make changes. He fired the warden, Colonel Joaquín Darío Medrano, and appointed Horacio Bustamante Reyes to take over. Bustamante previously oversaw the Medium Security Penitentiary and Prison Establishment of Manizales, and has been with INPEC for 27 years.