Prison tales

We can readily admit that the Philippines’ penal system, being run by the Bureau of Corrections, leaves much to be desired in a world of convicted criminals plagued by congestion, and the all-too-familiar pitfalls of penitentiaries worldwide.

The sobering reality, however, is that BuCor’s chief, Director General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., could be facing a far grimmer scenario, as had been written in the dark annals of Colombia and Venezuela.

Conjure up this image: A pact between the devil and the authorities, a deal forged in the crucible of crime by the infamous Pablo Escobar before he was shot dead on the roof of his safe house.

A titan of the drug trade who inspired Mexico’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Escobar cobbled up a macabre deal with the Colombian government back in 1991 that allowed him to lord it over his own prison facility, if one could even call it that.

Escobar, who had a penchant for the high life, gave his bizarre haven the name La Catedral, where he was given a maximum sentence of five years inside the confines of a Medellin mountaintop resort of his own design.

La Catedral  was not an ordinary prison, as it boasted a soccer field, a discotheque (dance floor to non-boomers), a huge jacuzzi, and armed guards of Escobar’s own picking.

In essence, the Colombian government had unwittingly anointed him the ruler of a kingdom built on crime, drug money, and the blood of rival drug lords, as well as of police and government officials who dared try to stop him.

Escobar’s reign within La Catedral was, however, short-lived, as a scandalized world exerted great pressure on the Colombian government to transfer him to a real prison.

The Colombian drug lord would escape, and a year later, in 1993, would meet his demise at the hands of Colombian law enforcement backed by United States Drug Enforcement Agency operatives.

If we may appropriate Yogi Berra’s “It’s déjà vu all over again,” we see this week a parallelism with events in Venezuela, where the Tren de Aragua gang reigned supreme within the Tocoron prison.

Like Escobar at La Catedral, the Tren de Aragua gang had transformed their detention center into a realm of decadence and delinquency. However, the plot took a bewildering turn when the gang’s leaders, called the “pranes,” vanished like ghosts.

As it turned out, the Tren bosses got wind of a plan by the Venezuelan government to storm their sanctuary using 11,000 soldiers and police officers. The plan was a year in the making, but the Tren grand poobahs’ escape was hatched and effected within a week.

Here, the Venezuelan authorities’ dilly-dallying cost them dearly, a clear case of analysis paralysis mucking up a stale plan. Or was it because money made it possible for the crime bosses to fly from the coop?

The overlords’ brazen escape left a nation in disbelief. As the troopers reclaimed Tocoron, they uncovered a subterranean treasure trove — Bitcoin mining machines, rocket launchers and machine guns.

One soldier died in the operation, but many could have perished had the bosses decided instead to fight with the weapons they had that were worthy of a third-world country’s arsenal.

While Colombia and Venezuela are far from the minds of Filipinos, the prison tales reaching our shores serve as a warning that the Philippines must, at all costs, be prevented from becoming a narco-state, even as revelations of our top police officials’ involvement in the drug trade haunt us.

We must never cease to reflect upon the precipice we teeter on. We are compelled to rally behind judicial and penal reforms, erecting bulwarks against the encroaching tide of criminality.

Drawing inspiration from global best practices, we must fashion a system that incarcerates the irredeemable while nurturing the prospect of rehabilitation for those who can still rejoin society as reformed citizens.

True enough, Catapang has an unenviable job.

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