Latin American authorities take steps to alleviate prison overcrowding
By Dialogo March 09, 2014
A recent series of violent events in detention facilities throughout Latin America highlighted a problem many countries are dealing with: chronic prison overcrowding.
In January 2014, inmates rioted at the overcrowded Modelo prison in Barranquilla in northern Colombia. A fire broke out during the riot, and 16 inmates died during the disturbance.
In December 2013, 55 inmates escaped from an overcrowded Ecuadorean prison.
In Honduras, inmates in the overcrowded prison system are actively recruiting other prisoners to join organized crime groups, authorities said.
Colombian authorities consider solutions
Authorities in Colombia are considering different approaches to relieve the overcrowding in that country’s prisons.
Following the fatal riot in Barranquilla, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he was “backing moves to increase the use of house arrest rather than jail time for individuals sentenced to less than eight years in prison.”
Colombian authorities are also considering building more detention facilities.
The government is assessing the possibility of building a new prison center on the northern coast, Minister of Justice Alfonso Gómez Méndez said in late February 2014.
However, building new detention facilities would be very costly, according to Farid Benavides, a former vice minister for criminal policy within the Colombian Ministry of Justice.
“The difficulty with this solution is that the government simply doesn’t have the money to pay for new prisons that will cost the taxpayer up to $200 million USD.”
Benavides suggested a more effective solution: Colombia’s prison authority, INPEC, could hire more prison guards.
“With only 10,000 guards overseeing more than 120,000 prisoners across 142 prisons, it’d make more sense for INPEC to increase the number of guards managing the prisons,” said Benavides.
Whatever the approach, it is clear that Colombian officials must devise a plan for alleviating dangerous prison overcrowding, Benavides said.
In January 2014, Colombia’s prisons held 120,387 inmates in facilities designed to hold 70,066 people, authorities said.
Meanwhile, the number of inmates continue to rise, as Colombian security forces continue to capture suspects from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Los Urabenos, Los Rastrojos, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and other organized crime groups.
“This problem (of overcrowding) is compounded by the fact that each month now our jails are being filled with up to 3,000 new prisoners,” Benavides said. “Prison overcrowding in Colombia has reached record levels, with some facilities close to 60 percent over capacity, and some prisons, like Riohacha in La Guajira, at 350 percent (above capacity).”
Overcrowding in Ecuador’s detention system
In Ecuador, security forces have completed several successful security operations during the last year, which led to the captures of thousands of organized crime suspects. Some of those suspects have pleaded guilty or have been found guilty following a trial, which is putting more pressure on Ecuador’s prison system.
“In the last six months of 2013 alone, the prison population in Ecuador rose by 3,000,” said Jorge Vicente Paladines Rodríguez, a professor of criminology at the Simón Bolivar Andean University in Quito.
In recent months, Ecuadorean lawmakers passed a law that should help ease prison overcrowding, Paladines said.
The law, which will come into effect in August 2014, will decrease the length of prison sentences for some drug trafficking offenses.
“Small-scale drug traffickers, for example, will now carry a sentence of one to three years down from the previous homicide-style punishment of twelve years,” Paladines said. said.
Prison overcrowding in Ecuador and Honduras
The number of inmates in Ecuadorean and Honduran prisons has grown significantly in recent years, thanks to the effectiveness of security forces in those countries.
Ecuador is a major transit point for cocaine and synthetic drugs which are produced in South America and transported by transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. In recent years, Ecuadorean security forces have succeeded in capturing thousands of drug trafficking suspects, which has put pressure on the country’s prison system.
Between 2010 and 2013, the number of inmates in Ecuador’s prisons grew from 11,000 to 25,000, said Fernando Carrión, a security analyst based in Quito.
“Last year, the National Police seized 57 tons of narcotics, up from 46 tons in 2012, which brought with it a large increase in arrests and now over 60 percent of prisoners are convicted drug traffickers,” Carrión said.
In recent years, the Sinaloa Cartel and other Mexican organized crime groups, such as Los Zetas, have increased their operations in Ecuador. That has led to more captures of Mexican drug trafficking suspects by Ecuadorean security forces, Carrión noted. Ecuadorean security forces are also capturing increasing numbers of Colombian drug traffickers, the security analyst said.
Building new prisons
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa declared that he would end prison overcrowding in 2014 by building three new “social rehabilitation centers” in the provinces of Guayas, Cotapaxi and Azuay. The new facilities will add 15,000 spaces to Ecuador’s prison capacity.
In Honduras, increased operations by the Sinaloa Cartel has led to more arrests in recent years of Mexican nationals, said Simeón Flores, the Honduran director of prisons.
The higher number of captures has contributed to prison overcrowding in Honduras. More than 13,000 inmates are incarcerated in Honduran prisons, in facilities which were built to house 10,000 people.
Honduran officials are also going forward with plans to build new prisons to alleviate overcrowding, Flores said. One new prison will be in the department of Santa Barbara, about 100 kilometers south of San Pedro Sula, and the other will be in the department of El Paraiso, Flores said.
Collectively, the two prisons will cost about $30 million (USD), Flores said. Each facility will house more than 2,000 inmates.