Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Prison Violence Continues – Underlying Causes Go Unaddressed

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 12 2005 (IPS) - A fresh outbreak of violence in a prison in Argentina ended Tuesday with 13 prisoners dead, just two months after a riot in which eight inmates were killed.

Human rights lawyers say that although the causes for these incidents are clear, there is a lack of will to address them.

The violence broke out late Monday in the prison in Coronda, a town in the northeastern Argentine province of Santa Fe, when a group of prisoners armed with homemade knives took two guards hostage and broke into two other wings of the jail.

According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, which got the situation under control by the early hours of Tuesday morning, the attackers stabbed 11 prisoners to death, burnt two others alive, and injured another six.

No grievances or demands by the inmates were reported, and the two guards were released unharmed.

The incident occurred two months after a violent revolt in the prison in San Martín, in the north-central province of Córdoba, where the number of inmates was three times capacity.

The prisoners in San Martín, who had taken around 70 hostages, including guards and visiting family members, were demanding better prison conditions. Five prisoners, two guards and a police officer were killed in the riot.

Authorities in the Coronda jail say Monday’s violence arose between rival gangs of prisoners from the provincial capital of Santa Fe and from Rosario, another large city in the province.

According to the official reports, inmate Eduardo Verón, reportedly the head of the Santa Fe gang, was murdered on Sunday, and Monday’s violent rampage was an act of retaliation by the Santa Fe prisoners against those from Rosario.

"This won’t end here. We have to block the attempts at revenge," the sister of one of the survivors of Monday’s killings said at the prison gates.

But justice system officials and human rights attorneys say that while rivalry between gangs might be the catalyst for violent outbreaks and riots in the country’s prisons, there are deeper underlying causes.

"Explaining this incident as a clash between prisoners from two different cities is the government’s way of eluding its responsibility for preventing these situations," said lawyer Gustavo Palmieri with the Centre of Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group.

Palmieri pointed out to IPS that although previous fights in Coronda had already resulted in injuries and deaths – a situation that is also seen in other prisons around the country – "no measure to prevent these incidents has been taken."

The latest annual CELS report states that the high levels of violence seen in Argentina’s prisons are a result of overcrowding and degrading conditions, as well as corruption involving prison officials.

The report, which was published in December 2004, warned that riots and violent fights had occurred in Coronda since 2003. In 2004, there were reports of unlawful coercion against prisoners from Rosario who had gone on a hunger strike demanding to be transferred, and two revolts in which 56 and 33 inmates were injured, respectively.

Antonio Tesolini with the non-governmental organisation Coordinadora de Trabajo in Santa Fe, said Tuesday that the overcrowding in Coronda "is an explosive cocktail," although he admitted that rivalry between gangs of prisoners from Santa Fe and Rosario does exist.

Tesolini said his group was pushing for dialogue among the inmates in an attempt to prevent further conflicts, and did not rule out the possibility that the violence had been fomented by prison officials, who are opposed to the assistance provided by his organisation.

"Riots and revolts are absolutely preventable. Prison authorities are aware of that, and you just have to wonder then why they don’t take the necessary measures," said lawyer María Gómez, a public defender.

Gómez said Tuesday that she had spoken to a prisoner with a record of good behaviour who was suddenly transferred by the Federal Penitentiary Service in the early morning hours, without any warning or explanation.

"He is an inmate from Buenos Aires, who was transferred to the Batán jail in Mar del Plata (400 kms south of the capital) where he is afraid he will be killed, because there is strong rivalry there with the ‘porteños’," as Buenos Aires residents are known.

Five prisoners were murdered in Batán last year. The lawyer said the violence is linked to conditions in the penitentiary, which the courts described as "deplorable" in 2004, when they ordered the closure of three sections of the prison.

Gómez has filed complaints of torture in Buenos Aires prisons, where 37 inmates were killed in the first two months of the year – five times more than in the same period in 2004.

The appalling conditions and continuous reports of mistreatment and torture in prisons in the province of Buenos Aires, the country’s most populous, were documented in a report last year by the Committee Against Torture, of the Provincial Commission for Memory, an independent state body.

The study, "System of Cruelty: Corruption and Torture in Prisons and Police Stations in the Province of Buenos Aires", paints a dismal scene: cells without windows or ventilation, toilets without water, windows without glass and showers without hot water, even in the cold Argentine winter, shortages of food and medicines, and veritable torture chambers where prisoners are mistreated.

An equally denigrating situation, which results in serious violent incidents, is found in prisons in the western province of Mendoza. In the past year, 16 inmates were killed in one single facility, Casa de Piedra, which was designed for 800 prisoners but holds 2,400.

The most shocking case in Casa de Piedra was that of Sergio Salinas, a young man who suffered congenital cerebral atrophy and had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital five times in the past. Despite his mental condition, which made him unfit to stand trial, he was thrown into prison for attempted assault.

After Salinas was murdered in the prison in December 2004, his body was dismembered and the parts were found in different wings of the facility. Neither this killing nor the others were ever clarified.

The killings in Mendoza prompted a late 2004 visit by a delegation sent by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an Organisation of American States (OAS) body.

The delegation sent a report to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which could decide on sanctions for the Argentine government.

The Commission intervened after a group of lawyers in Mendoza warned that the prisoners were living in a state of permanent risk of mortal attack, in a context of severely overcrowded conditions.

The United Nations Latin American Institute for Crime Prevention and Treatment of Offenders (ILANUD) says prisons in the region, instead of serving as places where inmates pay for their crimes and are rehabilitated, have become human warehouses and schools of crime.

According to the Costa Rica-based ILANUD, the flagrant violations of the human rights of prisoners are aggravated by the severe overcrowding.

That problem was found in the prisons of every one of the 18 countries studied by ILANUD in 2003, but in 15 the overcrowding reached critical levels: overpopulation rates of 120 percent of capacity or higher.

In many countries, the majority of prisoners have not even been sentenced yet. In Honduras, 79 percent of inmates are pending trial, in Uruguay 72 percent, Ecuador 70 percent, Peru 67 percent, Panama 58 percent and Bolivia 56 percent.

As a result, many spend months or even years in prison before they are sentenced or found innocent, said ILANUD.

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