PARAGUAY, Roberto M. González and Maria Fischer •
The riot in the Tacumbú prison, the largest in Paraguay, ended with seven deaths from stab wounds, some with their throats slit, only two of them were convicted prisoners. This is not just another piece of news. I am thinking that our boys, those boys I met in the juvenile prison, those boys who offered me the first tereré (local drink) of my life, who told me about their dreams for a family, for a dignified life, when they turn 18 may end up in these adult prisons… “Many of those I know are in there now, involved in these mafias, some of them are already dead…”, Father Pedro Kühlcke answered me. “House Mother of Tuparenda ( Casa Madre de Tuparenda – CMT) saves them from that fate, at least some of them”. —
The victims have names. They are Francisco Vargas Leiva, Alexis Davis Miranda Candia, Carlos Raúl Casco Rojas, Fernando Ortiz Echeverría, Julio César González Cáceres, Julio César Shaeramm Barrios and Roberto Ríos. Of this list, Gonzalez Caceres and Rios were convicted, the rest were indicted. Do they have family? Do they have someone to mourn their death? “It is always shown in the news the deplorable condition in which the prison is. No one is warmed by it because everyone feels that criminals deserve to live like animals. And so no one lifts a finger to help them be in better conditions”, we can read in one comment. I think of Pope Francis, in his visit to Lampedusa, in his question: Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? Now… Has any one of us wept for these seven men?
The uprising among prisoners in Tacumbú once again highlighted the problem of overcrowding in the country’s prisons, a consequence of the abuse of pretrial detention. Prison authorities acknowledge that many not convicted prisoners end up recruited as members of criminal organizations operating inside the prisons.
British journalist Rowe who in 2019 (Watch Documentary on Netflix, chapter Paraguay. 4th Season) earlier visited the Tacumbú National Penitentiary commented: “I’ve never seen anything like Tacumbú before.” He described that seeing people who committed crimes sleeping on the floor, in the open air, with other people with minor offenses, is unusual. He also found it surprising that there are inmate entrepreneurs, prisoners who, besides selling drugs, sell sandwiches, jams and other products, all with the approval of the guards. Another incredible detail for Rowe was that people walk around with knives, inside the penitentiary “as if it were nothing”.
Lawyer and teacher Jorge Rolón Luna explains that the current prison situation is a consequence of years of lack of vision from the state.
“Since its emergence, the prison began to unveil its characteristics, one of them is the issue of criminal contagion: it is an environment where one goes and becomes more criminal than you already are, and if you were not, you become a criminal,” he said.
The penitentiary system must care for wounds, soothe pain, offer new possibilities
The Paraguayan Episcopal Conference (CEP) regretted the terrible condition in which the whole penitentiary system of the country is in, as well as expressed its concern for the extreme violence, after the last riot registered in the prison of Tacumbú.
Considering the latest events that took place in the National Penitentiary of Tacumbú, we express our condolences and spiritual closeness to the families who lost their loved ones in a tragic way.
The violent riot in that penitentiary, which took the lives of seven people and left several wounded, shows us, once again, the terrible condition of our prisons and the entire Paraguayan penitentiary system.
The facts show that there is no point in having a superstructure to hold people who have committed crimes if there is still a high level of corruption in the prisons and if a profound penitentiary reform is not carried out.
We regret the lack of an effective and successful action – management to reduce the prison population without conviction and avoid overcrowding that is detrimental to the basic rights of every human being.
We are also concerned about the extreme violence of criminal groups that condition and blackmail the national authorities and have control over the prison population. They are increasingly numerous and violent.
Many of those who are deprived of their freedom and are serving a sentence or waiting for justice to act according to the law have dreams and hopes, have families waiting for them and truly want to be reintegrated into society.
When we recall the journey of the Holy Father, as Shepherd of the flock, we notice that he always visited prisons and people deprived of their freedom. On one occasion, when he visited the Curran Fromhold prison in Philadelphia (USA), he said: “It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities.” and he made an analogy by recalling the washing of the feet, which, from the Christian point of view, means service to others and that we are all children of God on an equal footing.
At that time, September 2015, the year in which he also visited our country, the Pope expressed his wish to the inmates saying “he wants us to return to our pathways, to life, feeling that we have a mission; that this time of imprisonment has never been a synonym of expulsion”.
We urge the National Government, the Judicial and Legislative Authorities to increase their efforts and challenge us to a much more humane and humanizing view in favor of the people deprived of freedom who truly deserve a second chance, after all, it is a benefit for the entire population”.
“I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt 25:36)
At the moment the Government is building 3 new prisons, where one of them will be the first “maximum security” prison for the “most dangerous criminals”.
We can talk for hours about the work of prison ministries in Paraguay and the world, but it is useless if we do not work on a change of paradigm, of vision towards our brothers and sisters who are in the prison system.
When we discover in the eyes of the young people, who are inside the Itauguá Educational Center, the eagerness to live with dignity, to feel loved by their families, we can not only see Jesus in them, but also ourselves.
They are young people who have not had the same possibilities as others and were drawn into delinquency by necessity or by bad friendships, finally ending up in the harsh prison system, the difference between an “educational center” (which has only its name for education) and an adult prison is very little.
“Second chances” do not happen very often, but for most of these young people, it is the first time they receive a stable education in a healthy environment, which is available to accompany them in their personal growth to become the people God intended them to be, this is the role of House Mother of Tuparenda.
A post-penitentiary rehabilitation center is a very strong name, very strong because in the eyes of many, “criminals” cease to be people before society and only have the right to a life in prison, if it is perpetual, all the better, and even death in some cases.
But is this the ideal of Christians that we wish to live in our time? One in which a “mistake” however small or big it might be, is already a predestination to a life of mistakes?
It is not easy to work with people in helping them to improve every day, let’s think of another environment outside of prison, how long does a new employee need to learn how the company works? Are his mistakes punishable by capital punishment? Then, a teenager, who is growing up in a society, which is already violent, the only thing he deserves is jail from 14 onwards because of a mistake?
We are not talking about leaving this “mistake” unpunished. But we are talking about working with and in favor of the person, in order to prevent this behavior from continuing and escalating in intensity.
Today the classic penitentiary system is out of date, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is very difficult to break, but not impossible, and the work of the House Mother is an example of this, ensuring that fewer young people go to the university of organized crime, which today is a threat to the whole Paraguayan society.
The first tereré
I cannot finish this first article of a series of articles that we are preparing with Roberto, without the story of my first tereré. It was March of 2015, my first visit to Itauguá Educational Center, along with Father Pedro Kühlcke (not my first visit to a jail, but that is a different story). We were inside the jail, in the patio, a warm day, surrounded by lots of young people, big hugs, pictures, long interactions with the Pa’i (Priest in Guarani) and very shy with this German lady who came from far away to visit. When F. Pedro was with a young man who wanted confession, 3 young man approached to me with a bottle and a mate with tereré… dirty hands, dirty faces, bottle of a not define color, a semi broken smile, one for all… they drank, one and then the other, and with a glance that I will never forget, one of them asked me: “Do you want tereré?” I had been one week in Paraguay, and no one offered me tereré before. It seemed like an eternity… Every one looking at me anxiously, do you want some? I have done it for you, shall we drink together? a bit moment of concern in the eyes of father Pedro Küehlcke turned in to the most satisfying moment after I sipped for the first time. This was my first Tereré, and I have never tried a better one, a tereré with the taste of poverty, misery, of hope, solidarity, friendship and commitment to this children and eager to ask for the Peace Nobel Prize for Father Pedro. This moment of friendship with these 3 boys and with everyone else in this jail is one of the greatest gifts of my life. I have friends among the poor.
So, Yes, Roberto, you are right. We must change the vision. I saw Jesus in the eyes of those 3 boys that offer me to share tereré with them. My friends.
Original: Spanish 2021-02-28. Translated by Maria Aragón, Monterrey, México