¿Have you met our sheep? Asked the Coronel, beaming with pride as he oozed a viscous, sticky brand of tropical cynicism. “One is actually half-goat, half-sheep. They keep our lawns nice and mowed as they feed. Its really a win-win.”
Coronel Calles is the ranking army officer in charge of the Centro Penitenciario para Procesados Militares, more commonly known as Ramo Verde. Despite being a military facility populated mostly by low-ranking soldiers guilty of petty drug offenses and minor corruption, the prison has, since 2002, become the go-to depository for civilian dissidents. Union leader Carlos Ortega, accused of being involved in the 2002 coup, famously broke out of Ramo Verde and now lives in exile in Perú.
Presently, the military prison houses six former Policía Metropolitana officers, most famously former superintendent Iván Simonovis, all sentenced to the maximum penalty of 30 years for their alleged involvement in the 2002 events. Ironically, they share prison space with former defense Minister Raúl Baduel, the guy who undid the coup, who’s been imprisoned here since 2009 when he openly opposed the President’s constitutional reform (technically, he was sentenced on corruption charges). Recently, three new civilian inmates were welcomed into this elite club of nonconformists: Mayor of San Cristóbal Daniel Ceballos, Mayor of San Diego Enzo Scarano, and, the political persecution pièce de résistence, opposition leader Leopoldo López.
On a recent Saturday morning, Coronel Calles played gracious host to the delegation of Chilean legislators that I took on what I like to call the Human Rights Violations Tour 2014. Our visit to Ramo Verde was meant for them to confirm, first hand, the conditions of López’s imprisonment. Of course, confirmation presupposes being let inside.
“You know I would love to give you a personal guided tour of this facility,” the Coronel said, grinning. “If it were up to me, well, I would let eeeverybody in, you know, because your Chilean prisons have nothing to envy ours. We are very proud of our unit here.”
The Coronel’s smarmy effervescence sets off the gloomy vibe that smacks you in the face as soon as you start the ascent past the first military checkpoint, up the isolated hill that lodges this eerie hive of humid cinderblock and barbed wire. Unease sets in as soon as you have to start begging the Oppressor to do you a favor. Past the sheep-herd and the requisite stray dog, a small parking lot greets you with a friendly institutional reminder: Independencia y Patria Socialista, Viviremos y Venceremos.
The actual entrance to the prison is a series of locked fences, similar to the ones that enclose poultry, in front of which is the waiting area for visitors. An assortment of family members sit silently on a bench, each eyeing the others’ plastic bags filled with chicken and rice and pasta and beans in Tupperware beaded with condensation, while they wait for the sad gatekeepers, too skinny for their uniforms, to receive the order to let them in.
“But we hear that he is isolated,” asks one Chilean Senator. “It is true that they can’t speak to anyone?”
“NONSENSE!” the Coronel guffawed. “Leopoldo speaks to us all the time! Sometimes he even yells to other inmates from his window, you wouldn’t believe the racket these guys make, while we’re trying to eat our lunch.” He went on about what a talkative bunch these silly inmates were.
I have to give credit to the Coronel. He put up a mighty smug, if entertaining, charade. His story was that clearance to visit Leopoldo was only a matter of getting in touch with the Minister of Defense, “whom I text with all the time from my Blackberry,” as a mere formality.
“Señorita!” his glare zeroed in on me. I froze. “Have our guests eaten lunch yet? There’s an amazing steak restaurant just down the street from here. I go there every day. You should go there while you wait for clearance to go in…Prime cuts of juicy Venezuelan beef. The good stuff, my friends, the best.”
After we sat for a couple of hours watching visitors stream into the prison, and trying to guess which arroz con pollo recipe looked most appetizing, the Coronel came back with news. “Its quite odd,” he lamented. “Usually Admiral Meléndez answers right away. She must be working. You know, we never stop working, even on weekends. Perhaps you can get in touch with your Embassy and maybe you can… come back on Monday? Oh! You’re leaving tonight? [it’s almost as if he knew what time their return flights left…weird.] Well that’s certainly a pity. A shame, really…”
As he handed the Chileans back their passports with feigned disappointment, he suddenly lit up. “Hey! I have an idea! Why don’t you, Señorita, give me your number, and I can give you a call should the Minister answer my text in the next few hours?”
“Um….I…don’t…uh…err…have..a cellphone.” Is all I could muster to answer to his sinister charm, while I tried not to meet his stare (weak, I know, but YOU try keeping cool in front of a 90’s action movie villain).
“Well until next time, then!” he smacked the Chileans on the back, jolly as ever. “Come back anytime!”
I have never been happier to see a green-clad figure recede into the background from our rearview mirror, as we drove away.
I wonder if Leopoldo gets to play with the sheep.