Slow wheels of justice clog prisons in Panama


PANAMA CITY, Panama -- A wretched stench permeates th air around this city's 86-year-old maximum-security prison -- built for 250 inmates, now holding 1,200 men.

More than 85 percent have never been tried. Many have been awaiting trial for five years or more. Still more have been waiting 18 months, ever since President Bush launched the U.S. invasion to "restore democracy and justice to Panama."

Lunatics, AIDS victims, drunks, drug addicts, cronies of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, murderers, vagrants, petty thieves and dope dealers, all crowd under the red tin roof in the humid, 90-degree heat.

The U.S.-built Modelo Prison and Panama's 43 other jails and provincial lockups provide the only point upon which every Panamanian politician can agree: With nearly 80 percent of its 3,744 prisoners awaiting trial, the system is a scandal, the rear end of a judicial system gone awry.

* Politically appointed justices of the peace, many of them non-lawyers, routinely sentence minor offenders to the Modelo maximum-security prison or to the penal colony on Coiba Island because there is nowhere else to send them.

* People can be detained for years on the strength of a "denuncia," or criminal complaint, that results in an investigation by the attorney general's office. The investigation may ultimately find the person innocent. More than 17,000 denuncias were lodged in the first nine months after the U.S. invasion on Dec. 20, 1989.

* Prisoners' appeals and other Supreme Court records were destroyed in the invasion, forcing lawyers and judges to try to reconstruct documents while the prisoners wait.

* Inmate records at the Modelo Prison were sacked in the invasion, and all the prisoners fled. Police said they knew who the prisoners were and recaptured them. The Modelo population has jumped from 600 in the last days of the Noriega regime to about 1,200 today.

* If a suspect has powerful friends, money and a good lawyer, he can avoid jail altogether. The country's former police chief was recently released from jail because of a minor ear infection and placed under house arrest. Poor defendants rarely have a

lawyer. There are only 20 public defenders for the whole country.

* Of the 50 or so Noriega military men and civilians awaiting trial, only one has been convicted -- of a crime unrelated to the old regime. Many view themselves as "prisoners of war" whose only crime was to defend the country from a foreign invader.

"Hundreds if not thousands of Panamanians who have not been tried, who may never be tried and who, if tried, may never be convicted, are nevertheless incarcerated, usually more than a year, in seriously overcrowded prisons," said an April report by Americas Watch, a New York-based human rights group.

"In many cases, the time spent in jail already exceeds the time they would have spent had they been tried and convicted," the report said.

* Recently, the government for the first time allowed a group of foreign journalists to visit the Modelo Prison.

In the prison's bowels are the security cells for troublesome inmates. The faces peer out of the grille at the top of the door. A single light bulb shines behind them, casting shadows in the dimly lighted corridor.

"They kept me in the dark in one of those cells for six months without a chance to get outside," says Benjamin Colamarco, the former head of the Dignity Battalion, the Noriega paramilitary force, who is now kept in more comfortable quarters.

Nearby, an AIDS patient is dying slowly. The warden had won his release on humanitarian grounds, but there were no funds to send him home to his family near the Costa Rican border. There is no money to screen prisoners for the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The 17 AIDS patients are segregated from the general prison population, as are homosexuals.

A few doors away, violent psychotics are restrained in their cells. Almost none has access to modern anti-depressive drugs. Panama has no mental health facilities for them,nor for the prison's drug addicts.

A madman wanders down the corridor, talking about Santa Claus.

There is one doctor for the whole prison.

* The second floor is different. Its dormitory wing houses 24 well-to-do prisoners, including Mr. Colamarco and Jaime Simmons, the former head of the national savings bank under General Noriega. Here the well-dressed prisoners are allowed televisions and radios.

Since the invasion, Mr. Colamarco has been awaiting trial on treason charges stemming from what he says was "harassment of American troops."

Mr. Colamarco refers to himself as a prisoner of war and has appealed his treatment to the Organization of American States, contending that he is a "patriot who tried to defend my country."

Mr. Simmons says the charge he faces of stealing from the bank would get him only six months in jail or a $150 fine. "I have been here 18 months, and there is still no indication when I will get out," he says.

"Tell the world we are political prisoners," he yells as the visitors leave.

* The Renacer maximum-security prison along the Panama Canal paradise compared to Modelo.

Here there is room to spare, because the 29 former Noriega military men do not occupy all the space in their restricted cellblock. Reporters were not allowed to see the military men, who include some of General Noriega's top officers and biggest human rights violators.

The prison has 169 men, many of them alleged murderers. Only 23 have been tried.

Of the 14 prisoners who have been in jail for five years or longer, six have been freed for lack of evidence or because their time in jail exceeded their possible sentence, says Lt. Luis Gordon, head of the guard force.

One of the freed had been in jail eight years, a time so long that the evidence was lost or witnesses disappeared. The man could have received Panama's maximum sentence -- 20 years -- for murder.

Renacer -- which means rebirth -- is like a summer camp surrounded by barbed wire. Men play dominoes or make artifacts in a small workshop.

"I hope you realize what a tragedy this is -- to have so many people waiting years for trials," says Maritza Grifo, the jail's penologist. "I wish somebody would get off the dime and do something."

During the invasion, U.S. troops assaulted the prison, letting inmates flee. "But most came back. They had been jailed so long they didn't know what to do on the outside. Maybe they thought that the new government would provide swifter trials," says Lieutenant Gordon.

* "The system is one big horror," said Carlos Lucas Lopez, the Supreme Court president and the nation's highest judicial officer. "I think the government made a fundamental mistake when they decided not to renovate the judicial system. Instead, they decided it would be business as usual, and now we are paying the price."

In the two years before the invasion, the Noriega regime had not tried a single criminal case.

"After the invasion, there should have been a reassessment of the situation. We had cases of people waiting six, seven or eight years for trial, with no evidence left and all the records burned," said the judge.

He and other members of the bench recently toured some prisons, freeing a few inmates whose ancient cases had no hope of being tried.

About 140 others were pardoned earlier this year.

The thirst for revenge against members of the Noriega regime also has contributed to the backlog of cases, he said. "In many Latin countries, the new regime provided a political solution, but there is no thought of that here," he said, mentioning several countries, such as Nicaragua, Argentina and Uruguay, that have used an amnesty to resolve their political difficulties.

Latin American diplomats have been trying for weeks to persuade the government of President Guillermo Endara to announce an amnesty, but they say he fears a public outcry.

Another complicating factor is the nation's growing crime wave, fueled by a 20 percent urban unemployment rate, the highest in Latin America.

"When they talk about justice in Panama, they mean getting the Noriega people," said a prominent lawyer who declined to be identified. "The vast majority of prisoners -- the underclass poor -- could rot forever as far as the middle class is concerned.

"In their mind, they are guilty, even though they have never been tried," said the lawyer. "In their mind, the crime wave would double overnight if they were released."

* Jose Miguel Aleman, deputy secretary of the Government and Justice Ministry, appears overwhelmed by the prison system he has headed for barely 60 days.

"There's no doubt about the scandalous nature of the system," said the young lawyer. "But we are trying to make renovations in the prison system and have plans to build three new prisons in four years, each with a capacity of 1,000."

He said justices of the peace were being encouraged to devise non-jail sentences for minor offenses. "It's ridiculous to be sending drunks to the Modelo when they could be sentenced to painting a public building on Saturdays," he said.

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