Handcuffs remain hanging from a fence at La Modelo prison in Bucaramanga, Colombia, on August 21, 2015. In a prison in the mountains of Colombia, a government program gathers former guerrillas and former paramilitaries, once mortal enemies and today demobilized, in order to prove that reconciliation is possible. AFP PHOTO / GUILLERMO LEGARIA        (Photo credit should read GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Officials probe prison sewers for human remains
01:00 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Investigation centers on disappearance of at least 100 people at Bogota, Colombia, prison

Prosecutor: "The victims were inmates, visitors and people who had nothing to do with the prison"

CNN  — 

Colombian authorities are investigating the disappearance and possible dismemberment of at least 100 people whose bodies were allegedly thrown into a sewer system underneath a notorious prison in Bogota.

The investigation is focusing on La Modelo, one of Colombia’s largest and most overpopulated prisons. But officials say the practice of dismembering people and tossing their remains into sewers might have also happened at other prisons in cities such as Popayan, Bucaramanga and Barranquilla between 1999 and 2001 and possibly later.

Caterina Heyck Puyana, a special prosecutor in charge of the case, said Wednesday that the Colombian attorney general’s office has been investigating what happened at La Modelo for months.

“Towards the end of last year we began investigating the possible disappearance and dismemberment of an undetermined number of people at La Modelo prison in Bogota,” Heyck said. “The victims were inmates, visitors and people who had nothing to do with the prison. Their remains were thrown into the drain pipes of the sewer system.”

The investigation

The decision to launch an investigation into whether there might be bodies under the prison was made as part of the case of two former paramilitary group members: Mario Jaimes Mejía, aka “El Panadero” (The Baker), and Alejandro Cardenas Orozco, aka JJ.

Authorities said Jaimes is a former chief of a paramilitary group in the city of Santander. Once in prison, he would reportedly bribe prison guards so that they would look the other way, and he also controlled access to one of the wings where the disappearances occurred.

Jineth Bedoya discusses the Colombian conflict in Havana, Cuba, in 2014.

Both face charges of torture, kidnapping and rape in the case of Jineth Bedoya. The Colombian journalist was investigating killings, disappearances, weapons trafficking and corruption at La Modelo prison in May 2000 when she was kidnapped and raped.

Jaimes and Cardenas have denied the accusations multiple times, but authorities said they have contradicted themselves during interrogations with prosecutors.

Bedoya appeared at the same press conference Wednesday where prosecutor Heyck made her announcement. The journalist did so in spite of the fact she has sued the Colombian government at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for what she calls its unwillingness to do justice in her case.

“I’m grateful for the actions being taken today, but it should’ve happen years ago,” Bedoya said. “El Panadero’s testimony taken more than 15 years ago, his version of the story, which is completely false, was endorsed by a prosecutor (with the Colombian attorney general’s office) and that allowed for the process to stall and the case to remain in impunity.”

Finding the truth key, journalist says

Officials may never be able to determine the identities of the more than 100 people who disappeared between 1999 and 2001.

Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reports that the body of an inmate was found in April 2000, but authorities have yet to begin looking for human remains in the prison’s sewer system.

Bedoya said this case is not only about what she had to endure but also the horrors many Colombians suffered during her country’s five-decade conflict in which guerrillas, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and security forces fought each other.

The Colombian government has been negotiating a peace agreement with the country’s largest, left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, since November 2012 in Havana, Cuba. President Juan Manuel Santos has said there’s a real possibility a final accord may be reached next month.

For Bedoya, finding the truth about the victims’ cases at La Modelo prison should be a priority for Colombia’s justice system.

“This is a debt that the state owes not only to Jineth Bedoya but the hundreds of victims of La Modelo prison and the paramilitary forces,” the journalist said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that at least 100 bodies had been found in sewer pipes at La Modelo prison in Bogota, Colombia. Investigators say they plan to search the pipes for the remains of up to 100 people who disappeared and may have been dismembered at the prison.