The violation of rights inside prisons is one of the fundamental problems in the penitentiary processes in Latin America, and in this specific case in Colombia, where overcrowding rates in some prisons exceed 365%, and where many inmates are deprived of spaces for recreation and re-socialization.
John* experienced this first hand. His actions resulted in his detention in five of the 138 establishments of Colombia's National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario de Colombia - INPEC). Although the goal of prisons is to "reform" prisoners, John claims that his transformation occurred not because of his time in the institution, but because of a genuine change in his heart.
John was born in Tumaco, Nariño, is 30 years old, and says that by the grace of the Lord he currently lives with his wife and three children in Popayán, the capital of the department of Cauca, Colombia. And yes, by the grace of the Lord, for it is only He who could have transformed evil into good. It sounds a bit strange to say that John, who is now a pastor, was part of an armed group, but that's how it is.
In 2007 John was only 16 years old and decided to join the paramilitary group called the Black Eagles. There were several reasons that led him to make this decision, but among some of these reasons are: “First of all, hate… The main thing that led me to join the armed groups, the delinquency, was the desire for revenge”. This desire for revenge was fueled for years by the loss of his father: “…I never knew my father, I only heard that he had been killed… So, since I was a child I listened to stories about my father, how he was killed and all that filled my heart with hatred”.
In an internal war of more than 50 years that has left thousands of innocent people dead on national territory, many children who have lost loved ones, just like John at the time, see armed groups as an opportunity: “I saw the option of having a support… yes, a stronger support to take revenge, and that was by joining the armed groups to have more power. Right?”, he says. In his hometown, Tumaco, he joined the Black Eagles as a “normal worker”.
His tasks? Committing murders, extorting people, and creating route strategies, among other tasks that were completely normal for him at the time. Because of his good performance and because he gained the trust of the leaders of that group, he was appointed neighborhood commander, a fact he could not celebrate for long, because almost immediately, he was taken to prison for the first time. In this case, the reason he was arrested was for illegal possession of weapons, and although legally his actions deserved a longer time behind bars, that first time he was deprived of his freedom for 22 months.
After almost 670 days in jail, he was surprised when he was released from prison and realized that two opposing sides, the Black Eagles, and the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column of the FARC guerrillas, had formed an alliance: “There was an alliance because the guerrillas, the FARC, operated around Tumaco, Mejicano, Río Chagüí, Rosario, the whole rural area. And the paramilitaries operated in the city and in the port of Tumaco.
The guerrillas needed to take over and gain strength to manipulate the commerce of Tumaco... So, they needed people. That's when they looked for a way to ally themselves and somehow contacted Mario Lata, the chief of the Aguilas Negras of Tumaco.”, John tells. He says that when he was released from prison, he stopped being a neighborhood commander and became the commander of the entire city of Tumaco and the entire port. “I was in charge of extortion and homicides. Yes, later I was Mario Lata's right-hand man, and we did many things for which some of them took me to jail again…”.
You may wonder then what is the change of heart we talked about at the beginning. Well, now let's talk about that part of your story.
“I was out for a few months working, as I said, and then I went back. I went back to jail, and I spent five years in prison”, but this time a definite change would be engraved in his heart forever. In the first Author: Camila G Security level: 3 (public) Date published: Thursday, 18 Aug 2022 Page 3 instance, he arrived at the Bucheli prison in Tumaco. He was ashamed because his bodyguards and many of his subordinates were also imprisoned there. He had been a very bloodthirsty man who hated Christians, John even claimed that: “I was very feared in the region, and I gained respect, I think because of my aggressiveness or my way of doing homicides, because in front of the people I would commit homicides and then I would lick the blood… And there came a time when every day I wanted to commit homicide. Every day I wanted to kill, I wanted to do massacres”.
However, once again God turned evil into good, because when he wanted to escape from the prison in Tumaco, he was transferred to the prison in Popayán. It was there that his life began to change. The San Isidro prison, yard four, corridor three, cell 38, was the place that God had predestined for John to find Jesus, thanks to the work of some missionaries who served in the prisons. This is how he started this difficult but wonderful process of transformation, because before he hated Christians, he slandered them and even wanted to kill them: “We saw them as a rival threat, as thieves, as profiteers, as liars. For this reason, we were always looking for ways to attack them.”, however, he says: “…somehow, I think that because of some people's prayers or God's mercy, I began to feel inside my heart a thirst and I don't know how to explain it…”.
He was imprisoned in five prisons: Tuquerres, Tumaco, Palmira, Cali, and the one that was God's instrument to transform his life, Popayán. Due to this, John has the necessary experience to say this: “being a Christian is very difficult because they look at you as Scripture says: the vile, the worthless, the helpless”. In Colombian prisons, it is common to hear about Christians: "We can rob them, we can beat them, we can humiliate them, we can do whatever we want with them, and they won't fight back." Spreading the gospel, or simply being a Christian in a prison is a threat, says John: "We have to face drug dealers who have control of the drugs inside the prisons.
For them it is not at all pleasant to see that suddenly there is someone preaching Christ inside the prison, because if two drug addicts convert to Christ, the drug dealer loses money." John has witnessed how the criminals who maintain control inside prisons seek to perpetuate their power, and to do this they need to have people they can control. Christians inside prisons stay away from the evil that occurs there, and by not following the common behavior inside these institutions, they are seen as enemies, and become targets.
When John began to follow Christ, many did not believe in him, not even those who prayed for his conversion. His cousin, who is a Christian and visited him a few times to preach about God when he was a prisoner in Tumaco, had to visit him in Popayán prison to be convinced of the change in his life. John knows that it is hard to believe that such a change could happen, but today, after almost five years since his release from prison, people around him have seen him carry and live the gospel, have seen a life truly transformed by Jesus Christ. John says that “For the Lord everything is possible. Amen! Everything is possible. And today I serve the Lord!”. John did not stand idly by in the face of the need for the gospel but responded to the Lord's call to serve Him. “God trained me inside the prison. The missionaries came and taught us. First, they gave us leadership training. And then they gave a training on theology". Not having his family or any material goods at that time, he followed the call to stay in Popayán to serve the Lord, and for that he received help from those he least expected. A man who was in prison with him opened the doors of his house to stay and start some meetings. Then a sister from the church offered him a place. But the help that surprised him the most came from one of the guards who had met him in prison: “He heard that I was opening a church and he told me ‘I am going to support you’, and he gave me some money to pay the rent for the first month”.
From a life of persecution of Christians, he went on to be persecuted in prison for being a Christian. Today he says
“For me Jesus Christ is everything, He is more than life. There are no words to describe the greatness of Jesus. I think there is no poet on earth who can come up with the most brilliant poem to express the greatness of Jesus”.