At least 100 bodies found in sewer system under prison

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BOGOTA, Columbia – Colombian authorities are investigating the disappearance and 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 discovery of the bodies was made as part of an investigation of two former paramilitary group members: Mario Jaimes Mejía, aka “El Panadero” (The Baker), and Alejandro Cardenas Orozco, also known as 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 killings took place.

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.”

Officials may never be able to determine the identity of the bodies found underneath the prison.

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.