Colombian prosecutors are investigating at least 100 disappearances from a prison between 1999 and 2001. They think the missing inmates may have been killed, dismembered, and dumped in the sewers of La Modelo, a long-notorious prison in the capital Bogatá.
"The horrors of what happened in La Modelo should be analyzed in depth by the prosecution in terms of criminal liability, but also deserve deep reflection from Colombian society," Caterina Heyck, the investigation's leader, told a press conference on Wednesday.
The investigation is actually a relaunch of an existing probe with a new sense of urgency and a special team of prosecutors. Heyck added that it is possible that the gruesome practice continued after 2001, and said that there is evidence suggesting similar things took place in other jails as well.
The first indication of what was happening in La Modelo came in 2000 when the chopped up remains of an inmate were found in a plastic bag in the drains eight days after he was reported missing following a prison fight. The day after that grisly discovery, another 17 inmates disappeared during another fight, but they were never found.
Though there have been rumors ever since that these prisoners, along with dozens more missing inmates and visitors, met the same fate, the prison sewers have never been properly examined.
In the wake of the probe's relaunch, the national prisons authority announced it would allow investigators to excavate part of La Modelo. General Jorge Luis Ramírez, the director of the authority, told reporters he had heard nothing about the missing since he took up the job 15 months ago. The prosecution has not ruled out investigating officials for complicity in the terror.
The disappearances from La Modelo took place at a time when the jail was filled with inmates from both right-wing paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrillas, both of which continued to run their operations from behind bars and controlled entire wings of the prison.
The phenomenon of people going missing, however, has so far been attributed entirely to the paramilitaries.
According to one ex-paramilitary, who gave information about the horrors of La Modelo in exchange for lighter sentencing under a 2005 law set up to facilitate the paramilitary demobilization, many of the deaths were rooted in inmates bringing their old conflicts and rivalries with them into the prison.
He said that they would take their gripes to the prison "commander" who might order detentions or disappearances.
"Many people were thrown into the sewers," he said in his testimony that was published on Friday in the weekly magazine Semana. He also spoke of a widely feared sicario, responsible for chopping up bodies, who would come with large sacks for sugarcane in which he would smash the bones.
Prosecutors said this week that the probe is indebted to the work started by Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya in 2000, when she noticed that a number of inmates and visitors were going missing from La Modelo. Her investigations indicated that the disappearances appeared linked to drug debts, feuds, or ransom demands made to family members outside. She was also investigating a paramilitary arms trafficking network inside.
Bedoya was kidnapped as she waited to enter the jail to interview Mario Jaimes — also known as 'The Baker' — a feared paramilitary boss who had promised her information. The journalist was tortured and gang raped before she was left tied to a rubbish pile outside Bogotá ten hours later.
Earlier this month the prosecutors in charge of Bedoya's case announced that Jaimes had confessed he organized Bedoya's kidnapping, torture, and rape.
Announcing the new investigation into the atrocities in La Modelo, prosecutor Caterina Heyck called on judges overseeing cases involving Jaimes, as well as others responsible for Bedoya's ordeal and the horror inside the prison, not to hand down light sentences.
"I want to believe in the power of the prosecution," Bedoya herself said at Wednesday's press conference.
She added that she had also received a message from the ex-paramilitary boss Daniel Rendón Herrera, known as Don Mario, who was an associate of Jaimes, indicating he was willing to provide information and urged him to make good on his promise.
"If he is really saying that he is committed to the truth of this country, we hope he has the bravery to give the names of the members of the security forces involved in my kidnapping," Bedoya said.
The news that the long-standing rumours of the atrocities in the prison are now at the center of a major probe has been covered intensely by the Colombian media.
It has underlined the key role played by paramilitaries within Colombia's long and bloody conflict that has killed at least 220,000 people and displaced around six million in the 50 years since left-wing guerrillas first rose up against the state.
Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan