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Coronavirus Fears Sparked Widespread Prison Riot in Bogotá

By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University and Major Efren MuñozCriminal Investigation Directorate and INTERPOL, National Police of Colombia

What makes prisons throughout the world especially vulnerable to disturbances is the tension resulting from overcrowding, problems with security and prison management, and overt prison conditions.  These disturbances can result in riots, escapes, and other prison problems.

For example, a prison riot at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in January, resulted in the deaths of five inmates and injuries to several others.

[Related: Riots, Hostage Taking, and Escape Training at Belize Central Prison]

Earlier this year, 75 inmates escaped from a prison in Paraguay. The country’s interior minister alleged that prison staff may have been complicit in this escape because some inmates were believed to have fled through the main gate.

In December of 2019, a prison disturbance in Panamá resulted in 13 inmates killed and 15 others injured in a shootout when guards found three AK-47 assault rifles and five pistols inside the prison.

A prison riot in Brazil in July of 2019 resulted in 57 inmates killed, two prison officers taken hostage, and the prison set on fire.

Coronavirus Has Placed an Additional Stress on Prisons

Prisons, which are a microcosm of society, are susceptible to the same problems as the outside world. The novel coronavirus pandemic has placed a substantial strain on the welfare, safety, and security within prisons. For example, the prison riot on Saturday, March 21, at La Modelo Prison in Bogotá, Colombia, left 23 prisoners dead, 83 injured, and seven prison officers in critical situation.

[Related: Staff Shortages Cited as Key Factor Leading to Prison Riots]

The rioting there and in other prisons in Colombia was the result of the authorities’ policies and decisions restricting visits by inmates’ relatives to prevent coronavirus contagion inside the prison. The inmates burned mats and blankets inside their cells, destroyed psychosocial care-classrooms, kitchens items and furniture, and some attempted to escape through the roof of common areas.

During the prison riot, inmates broadcast messages live on their cell phones.

Justice Minister Margarita Cabello called it “a massive and criminal attempt to escape” not only in La Modelo, but in 12 other jails across the country. Also, she reported that prison officers thwarted the escape of 5,000 inmates in all prisons where rioting occurred.

However, some inmates reported that protests arose because of jail overcrowding and unhealthy conditions. Others said that the rioting was planned by criminal organization members who feared that losing all contact with the outside would affect their criminal business. Some intercepted communications, published on Colombian media, showed that some of the riots were concerted plans to facilitate the escape of big criminal leaders.

According to the Colombian National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC), there are 121,356 inmates in facilities designed to hold 79,953. A third of the people in jail have not been tried yet because the Colombian justice system is one of the slowest in Latin America. This explains why there is jail overcrowding. Officials say what are needed are rehabilitation and social reintegration processes to avoid recidivism, which must be implemented under humanitarian conditions.

Unfortunately, Colombia has suffered more than 50 years of internal armed conflict. Guerrilla groups, drug trafficking, and terrorism have preoccupied the government and its institutions. Today, Colombia is facing a lack of effective prisons and budget policies, along with a huge immigration problem and a culture of illegality, making it difficult to improve the prison system.

The coronavirus pandemic is placing additional stress on the critical prison situation in Colombia. As a result, the Ombudsman’s Office, the mayor of Bogotá and the prison authorities have asked the National Government to decree a prison emergency that will allow authorities to protect and isolate almost 3,000 prisoners over 65 years old, who are considered the most vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.

About the Authors

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2019 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019.

Maj. Efren Munoz is a member of the Colombian National Police with more than seventeen years of experience in police service and criminal investigation, especially in crimes related to transnational organized crime, money laundering, forfeiture assets, terrorism, and drug trafficking. The qualities which have supported his personal and professional career are honesty, responsibility, integrity, and leadership. He has held positions that have allowed him to know crime closely, giving him the ability to successfully lead investigative processes and police operations against international criminal organizations, while working together with international representation agencies placed in Colombia such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) of the United States of America.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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