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Elmer Fernandez, the new director of one of Colombia’s biggest prisons, was shot dead in Bogota after receiving threats against him and his family. This incident occurred shortly after the government declared a “prison emergency” in response to a surge in violence within the country’s prisons, including riots, homicides, attacks, and threats against prison personnel. Fernandez, a former police colonel, was killed in a targeted attack when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle as he was returning home from work, resulting in his death with a single shot to the head.

Following Fernandez’s killing, Justice Minister Nestor Osuna condemned the act and announced that a major police operation was underway to apprehend the assailants. Colombian President Gustavo Petro expressed his solidarity with Fernandez’s family and vowed to continue working to combat criminal activity despite such attacks. General William Salamanca, the head of Colombia’s national police, ordered a lockdown in Bogota to aid in the search for the suspects, emphasizing that they will not be intimidated by such violence.

Fernandez had implemented new policies to clean up the jail and crack down on criminal activity, leading to him receiving multiple death threats. Some of Colombia’s most notorious criminals are held at La Modelo prison, where Fernandez was the director. The facility has been the scene of previous instances of violence, including a riot in 2020 that resulted in the intentional shooting deaths of 23 inmates. In 2022, a fire during an apparent riot in a prison in Tulua resulted in the deaths of 49 people and injuries to dozens more, highlighting the challenges faced in addressing violence and criminal activity within the country’s penitentiaries.

Organised prison gangs operate from within Colombia’s overcrowded prisons, engaging in activities such as drug smuggling and extortion. Jorge Restrepo, a political analyst and professor, noted that these criminal groups have significant power and influence across the country. Fernandez was actively working to separate gang members within the prison, making him a target for criminal organizations. The Colombian prison authority has warned that other officials are also at risk, with a number of guards being killed or surviving attempts on their lives, and hundreds receiving death threats in recent years.

Despite the risks faced by prison officials, including Fernandez, the government lacks the capacity to provide adequate protection such as armoured vehicles. Daniel Gutierrez, director of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute, acknowledged this limitation, stating that no director has such protection due to capacity constraints. The government remains committed to addressing the challenges within the country’s prisons and combating the influence of organized criminal groups, despite the ongoing threats and violence faced by those working in the prison system.

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