In Colombia, Fernando César Niebles Fernández died today


Fernando César Niebles Fernández died today … or was it Monday. It’s hard to tell. Anyway, he didn’t die. He was murdered.

This past Monday, January 27, a fire broke out in the Modelo prison, in Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. By day’s end, ten prisoners were reported dead, over 40 injured, many seriously. Today, the death toll rose to 11.

The fire has been described as an inferno, but the real inferno, the real hell, is the prison itself. Designed to hold around 400 prisoners, at the time of the fire, Modelo held close to 1200. The cellblock where the fire broke out was designed to hold 196. At the time of the fire, it held 716 That’s 265 percent of capacity. Modelo was and is a death trap, pure and simple. Colombia prison system is at almost 200 percent capacity.

When the fire broke out, it was thought to be a conflict between different groups. And so the staff shot tear gas into the cells and that was that. As the fire intensified, the bars remained closed. The inferno was not the fire. The inferno was `protocol.’

And now? The stories of the families pour forth, with photos and videos and words, words, words. Mothers and fathers, like Rocío Cantillo Torres  and Atanasio Mutis, wait for their sons. Sisters, wives, daughters, friends, neighbors, strangers wait for news, wait for death. Modelo was and is inferno. The event of death is important, but the death itself was long foretold. Who could survive such conditions?

And today, it’s Mercedes María Suarez’s turn. She’s Fernando César Niebles Fernández’s mother. Her son lived with severe mental health issues, caused by a road accident four years ago. He needed help. Instead, he got prison. It’s a common enough story. She weeps for her son, and asks how the State could have done this, could have come to this pass.

The ordinariness of the story of Fernando César Niebles Fernández and Mercedes María Suarez doesn’t reduce the suffering, the personal and individual tragedy, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s a national or historical tragedy. It’s not. It’s happened too many times, in Colombia and Brazil, in January, and around the world. Stuff the prisons to beyond bursting and what do you think will happen? The deaths at Barranquilla, like the deaths earlier this month in Maranhão in Brazil, were no accident. They were public policy. As James Baldwin once argued, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

There will be more fires, and some day the fire, the fire next time, will not be the fire of the criminally innocent: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more fire, the fire next time!” But today, weep for Fernando César Niebles Fernández, weep with Mercedes María Suarez.


(Photo Credit: El Universal (Colombia))