Bogota women's prison. Photo: Kiran Stallone.
“Step to the front of your mats. Inhale; lift your arms high, expanding upwards. Exhale; fold over your legs, palms to the floor.” As I walk my students through basic sun salutations, one giggles when she cannot quite balance on one leg or touch the floor. Her name is Marilú, and she smiles at me as I suggest an alternative pose.
Her reaction is not unusual in a beginner's class. But Marilú, 49, is far from the typical yoga student.
Instead, she is a FARC combatant incarcerated in a high-security women's prison in Bogotá. She has spent the last decade behind bars, convicted of terrorism and aggravated homicide for helping to explode a car bomb inside a military compound in 2007.
The FARC is an armed political group that has fought the Colombian government for nearly 60 years, with stated goals including wealth redistribution and land reforms for poor farmers. In recent decades it has also been linked to drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining and other criminal activities.
After nearly four years of negotiations, a historic peace deal was finalised in December 2016. Among other things, it grants the FARC ten seats in congress and the right to form a political party. FARC combatants are meanwhile required to appear before special tribunals that will review their cases and award amnesties, prison sentences, or other sanctions.
Women in a demobilisation zone. Photo: Kiran Stallone.
Since February approximately 6,900 combatants have arrived at 23 demobilisation zones across the country where they will remain for a maximum of 180 days, give up their weapons, register their cases, and have access to skill-building activities intended to facilitate their integration into civil society.
In the Bogota's women's prison where Marilú is incarcerated, she’s seen many fellow inmates released to these zones in recent weeks. But she and nearly 30 other women remain behind bars, anxiously awaiting news about whether, and when, they too will be allowed to leave.
Inside El Buen Pastor
Inside the prison, El Buen Pastor (The Good Shepherd), FARC prisoners are separated from the other inmates. Women incarcerated for robbery or drug trafficking are permitted to walk freely throughout the main prison areas, but political prisoners are locked behind a large metal door in separate quarters known as Pabellón Seis (the Sixth Pavilion).
The entrance to the Sixth Pavilion is intimidating and heavily guarded. Inside, however, it feels relaxed. The metal door opens onto an internal courtyard, surrounded by two floors of rooms with bright pink and green walls. In the courtyard, some women play basketball, while others sit outside of their rooms braiding each other’s hair.
The women wear civilian clothes, and colorful laundry is hanging to dry from all of the windows and doors. The smell of fried vegetables and meat comes from the adjacent kitchen, where they prepare meals with ingredients received from the prison. There is a small library as well.
"Who’s doing yoga?" I began teaching weekly yoga classes here in April 2017, as a volunteer for the Fundacion Teatro Interno. Set up by Colombian actress Johana Bahamón, it works in prisons country-wide, using yoga, theater, and dance to lessen the psychological consequences of captivity and improve possibilities of reconciliation and reintegration upon release.
As soon as I walk through the Sixth Pavilion's large metal door, one of the women calls out: “Who’s doing yoga?” Women step away from their chores and arrive with makeshift mats, greeting me with kisses on the cheek.
Moving through different yoga poses, they ask familiar questions. “How do I get a flat stomach?” “What can I do so my lower back doesn’t hurt?” One woman says: “If I didn’t exercise, I would go crazy.” Another: “It helps me to relax.”
After each class, I have a few minutes to talk to the women. Using a small notebook, the only object that I am allowed to take into the prison, I have been able to document some of their stories and learn about their plans for the future.
Some say they intend to return home to their families. Many hope to become politically involved as the FARC transitions from an armed group into a political party. All stress that they still support the group's vision for Colombia.
“We're still here!”
Under the 2016 peace deal, FARC combatants must appear before tribunals set up by Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace and receive amnesties, prison sentences, or other sanctions depending on their confessions and details of their cases. Immediate amnesty will be granted only to those with crimes categorised as acts of “political rebellion.”
The deal also covers already-captured and incarcerated FARC members. These prisoners’ cases will be reviewed by the same Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and many will be released to the demobilisation zones to join combatants who are already there.
On 18 April, four of the 60 women imprisoned at El Buen Pastor were sent to these zones. More have followed them in recent weeks.
Last week, 45 women remained behind bars. This week, that figure has dropped to 29. Those still inside are anxious for their release and frustrated at being left in the dark as to whether and when this will happen.
"The FARC is not demobilising, but rather mobilising and transitioning towards a different political phase.”
“When will they let us go? Please tell me when they will let us go,” demanded Doris, 50, last week, exclaiming: “We’re still here!” This week, I learned she was released and is now at a demobilisation zone.
Doris was part of the Bloque Ivan Ríos, a FARC section infamous for its control of narco-trafficking routes. She spent 14 years in prison, after her capture by state security forces in Medellín while attempting what she referred to vaguely as “a special job.”
Before she was released, Doris told me she was eager to get back to work to advance the FARC’s political agenda.
She said: “The FARC is not in the process of demobilising, but rather in a process of mobilising and transitioning towards a different political phase.”
Marilú, the woman incarcerated for her role in exploding the bomb in the Bogotá military compound in 2007, also says she wants “to work to achieve the political causes of the FARC within society, occupying a new space and taking on a new challenge.”
In particular, she wants to study communications and law, and to “serve the FARC within the new political party.” She said: “Particularly now that it is now legal, it is important to advance the FARC’s cause.”
Marilú’s future is uncertain -- but this hasn’t prevented her and her fellow prisoners from making personal, and political plans. Meanwhile, our yoga classes continue. “Inhale, curl yourselves up vertebrae by vertebrae. Exhale; bring your palms to your heart. Namaste.”