Two of the District’s top law enforcement officials are warning that dozens of federal prisoners with ties to Colombian rebel groups and international drug rings are a threat to security at the D.C. Jail and pose a risk of escape into the surrounding neighborhood.
The concerns have led city officials to ask the federal government for more money to provide security for the increasing numbers of prisoners, who are being held at the District’s corrections campus in Southeast.
Devon Brown, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC), outlined concerns about such prisoners in a U.S. District Court filing last month. The June 18 filing was part of a federal court battle over prisoner housing between the city and attorneys for a group of Colombian inmates indicted as being part of a cocaine ring.
Mr. Brown said an “unprecedented number” of city inmates - 60 in all - are thought to have ties to a Colombian drug organization.
Such prisoners must be kept separate from each other and “could easily use their skills and resources to coordinate unrest, violence or escape,” Mr. Brown said.
Of the 60 inmates, at least 20 are thought to be members of paramilitary groups that include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), both of which have been designated foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department.
D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles confirmed that officials are concerned about possible dangers connected with housing the Colombian prisoners.
“I think it’s the question of dealing with folks who are connected to a larger organization, which has money and has abilities to bring to bear at the institution activities that would pose security problems,” Mr. Nickles said. “What started as a trickle has suddenly in the last few months become large enough that we’ve noticed it.”
He also said officials have asked “appropriate federal authorities” to provide the funds to protect against security risks.
Colombian inmates recently sent to the city for prosecution include, according to court records, federal officials and news reports:
c Salvatore Mancuso-Gomez: Charged in a conspiracy to import cocaine to the United States, Mancuso-Gomez was a member of the ruling counsel of the AUC, which engages in “drug trafficking, kidnapping, bombings, extortion and murder,” according to court documents filed in May 2008.
The New York Times reported that Mancuso-Gomez “oversaw atrocities like the massacre of 15 civilians and displacement of more than 600 people in 1997 in the town of El Aro.”
“He used his position in the AUC to control large areas of cocaine production through a paramilitary army, and to direct the operations of the drug-trafficking organization at every level,” the court documents state.
c Rodrigo Tovar-Pupo: Also facing drug conspiracy charges, he is said to have run the AUC’s Northern Bloc and has been accused of involvement in the killings of tribal members.
A laptop belonging to Mr. Tovar-Pupo seized by investigators contained details of more than 550 killings and showed evidence of links between paramilitaries and Colombian politicians. An October 2006 Reuters news agency article said the laptop also contained e-mails showing the commander “ordering his men to recruit peasants to act as paramilitaries during demobilization ceremonies, a trick that allowed him to keep his real fighters active while appearing to comply [with] the peace deal.”
Mr. Tovar-Pupo also was mentioned in a federal lawsuit against an Alabama-based coal company, who relatives of slain Colombians say paid him and a wing of the AUC millions of dollars to assassinate union leaders and protect the company’s coal mine and railroad in the country, according to the Associated Press.
c Juan Carlos Sierra-Ramirez: Faced with charges similar to Mr. Mancuso-Gomezs, he also was an AUC member and “organized large shipments of cocaine for the AUC that [were] intended for importation into Central America using freighters, speed boats and other maritime vessels,” court documents state.
Mr. Brown said in his June court filing that his department also learned in March that it had a “substantial number” of extradited inmates who may have been underclassified in terms of their security risk - including prisoners from Afghanistan, Colombia, Haiti and the Netherlands.
The roughly half-dozen Colombian inmates at the center of one of the city’s disputes have been housed in the District’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), which is designed to hold prisoners designated as lower security risks. But city corrections officials redesignated the group as maximum-security detainees and asked a federal judge to move them back to the D.C. Jail.
A trail of documents filed in the case shows that attorneys for the inmates requested the move to CTF for reasons that include allowing their clients greater access to a law library, a laptop computer in order to view discovery materials and better medical care. The attorneys also said the defendants should be at CTF because there were a greater number of native Colombians housed there.
In June, defense lawyers argued that their clients should be housed in CTF and noted that their case does not involve violence and is a drug conspiracy. They also said a Justice Department report provided to corrections officials said the defendants have no purported ties to terrorist organizations.
“Again, according to the DOJ report provided to DOC, these defendants have no alleged ties to terrorist organizations,” the lawyers said. “There is no other international crime organization referenced anywhere in their institutional files or the indictment.”
Joanne D. Slaight, an attorney representing one of the inmates, said the Colombians have been “model inmates” at the correctional facilities.
“I don’t think they warrant being brought up to the United States in the first place,” she said. “The security issues, I think, for most of these people, they’re completely false, if not [for] all.”
But a December memo filed by the Department of Justice notes that Maria Amato, general counsel for the city Department of Corrections, said a recent upsurge of Colombian inmates seeking transfer to the lower-security facility is thought to be tied to the inmates desire “to commingle with their Colombian affiliates and to have contact visits for the passing of contraband.”
“In addition, Ms. Amato states that today the Department of Corrections has the largest population of alleged members of organized drug cartels and terrorist organizations in its history,” the memo states.
City officials in June also disputed defense assertions that the reclassification of the inmates was punitive and said even maximum-custody inmates at the D.C. Jail enjoy “constitutionally guaranteed rights to visitation, access to law library materials, communication with legal counsel, recreation, bathing, phone calls and religious services.”
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth on June 24 ruled that the inmates could be transferred back to the D.C. Jail. And prosecutors Tuesday said they intend to call witnesses in the case that can testify about the connection between drug traffickers and the AUC, which they say taxes traffickers in exchange for protection.