No visits – Translation
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[Daniel Alarcón]: Before we get started, a warning: in this episode, there are intense scenes that aren’t suitable for all listeners. Discretion is advised.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we’re starting with a night in 1994. The protagonist of this story, Marta Álvarez, returned to her home in a town in Colombia. It’s called Santuario. Her brother, who she lived with, saw her approach from the window
[Marta Álvarez]: When my brother saw me, he started banging on the window saying: “I’m gallo, son of a bitch,” that’s what he was saying.
[Daniel]: Gallo: angry, furious.
Marta was 34 years old and she lived in the same house as her brother, two nephews who were the children of a sister who lived in a nearby town, and a domestic worker. It had been four months since she had returned from the United States after living there for several years. She had returned for a specific reason: her brother was addicted to drugs and alcohol and refused to accept help.
Her sister, her nephews’ mom, couldn’t handle it anymore and needed Marta’s help. According to Marta, it was also likely that her brother had some mental illness that he never learned to treat.
They lived in a second-floor apartment, above a bar where at that moment there were two police officers having a beer. Marta approached them
[Marta Álvarez]: Before I went up, I told the two police officers, “Agents, can you take my brother? He’s on drugs and drunk and he’s very aggressive.” They told me, “No, we can’t enter; we don’t have authorization.” And I said, “I’m giving you authorization to enter my home.” “No, no when it gets worse come and tell us.” And I said, “No, it already is worse. I know, gentlemen, it’s already worse.” They refused to go up.
[Daniel]: And here we need to clarify something: since Marta had returned to Santuario, she lived in fear of her brother because from the first moment, he was especially aggressive with her. At night, when he would come home on drugs and drunk, he would enter Marta’s room violently and start insulting her, and a lot of the time he would hit her.
Marta is a lesbian, and her family has known since she was a teenager, but her brother would tell her all the time that she needed a man to “fix” her. He was so violent that sometimes she worried that he could kill her
That night Marta saw that he was more agitated than normal, and she was scared to death, but there was nothing she could do: she went into her house. There was no one else there at the time, and her brother started behaving as aggressively as always. From one moment to the next, he went up to her and unzipped his pants.
[Marta Álvarez]: He was in a very bad state. He takes out his penis and says, “Look, suck it. Suck it.” “He was already gone at that point
[Daniel]: This extremely violent act reminded her of the great trauma of her childhood and adolescence: the constant aggression she experienced on the streets of her town. All the time, men who knew she was a lesbian would harass her: they made obscene comments and insulted her.
[Marta Álvarez]: In the streets, they called me “¡Arepera!”, “Arepera, arepera, arepera” [literally, “arepa seller” used as an anti-lesbian slur]. An insult, you know? They even told me they were going to rape me to teach me to like men. It was harassment. Psychological and verbal harassment… It was violence, and I was very little.
[Daniel]: For that reason, what her brother was doing to her at that moment…
[Marta Álvarez]: It has like it activated some painful feelings that I had locked away. And we were very close, very close when he… he did that. Ugh, no, it did something very strange to me. I felt like everything inside of me was coming out, like my soul was coming out of me, like… I can’t explain it.
[Daniel]: Sometime earlier, Marta had gotten a gun to protect herself. It was illegal, of course, and she knew it. But at the time, someone she was close with had told her that her brother was going to hire a hitman to kill her. Later it was confirmed that another person knew about the plan. Marta felt like he could hurt her at any moment and she wanted to protect herself. In that instant, she grabbed the gun.
[Marta Álvarez]: Something strange came over me. I don’t… Yes, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. And I shot him, and he died.
I was in a state… I can’t describe it. I went out to the street. I saw a bunch of people and I saw the two police officers coming and I told them, “Look. I killed my brother. I was the one who killed him. Take me away and put me away.”
[Daniel]: She gave them the gun and asked them to take her to the police station.
[Marta Álvarez]: They didn’t even take me or anything. So, I walked with them and I… I put myself in the cell. I knew.
[Daniel]: She was guilty of killing her brother and she was ready to pay the price, whatever it may be. Marta wouldn’t be free again for a long time, but in that new situation, she would face a series of abuses and violence that had nothing to do with the crime she committed.
Our producer David Trujillo continues the story
[David Trujillo]: Her sister, her nephews, and Marta’s other relatives didn’t visit her at the time. Even though they understood what had happened and they knew about all of the abuse she had received from her brother, they were concentrated on planning the funeral: the religious service, the cemetery.
Three days after being in the cell at the Santuario police station, a cousin brought her some clothes and other things she needed. They already knew what happened next. That afternoon, they loaded her onto a truck to take her to a women’s prison more than an hour away.
[Marta Álvarez]: Handcuffed to a metal thing in the truck.
[David]: Like a pipe. Along the way, it started raining really hard and the police officer who was with her in the uncovered part of the truck decided to go to the front so they wouldn’t get wet.
[Marta Álvarez]: They left me back there alone. And I took off my handcuffs — I have really thin hands — and I took off my handcuffs and I sat there.
[David]: So she could sit more comfortably. When they got to the prison, around 4 in the afternoon…
[Marta Álvarez]: The police were like “Oh.” No, I was there without handcuffs. I didn’t leave because I didn’t want to leave. I mean I didn’t leave because I knew I had to answer for what I had done.
[David]: They made her take off all her clothes to search her. They took her picture, they took her fingerprints and reviewed her. Everything that’s done when a person is taken to prison.
The place wasn’t so big.
[Marta Álvarez]: Like a school. So, above there were the dormitories, and below there was the patio, the cafeteria, and the common areas.
[David]: The first thing they did was take her to the cafeteria to eat with the other inmates.
[Marta Álvarez]: And right there, all of them, some more than others, started asking: “Listen, are you new? Come here. Why are you here for? What’s your name?” And they started asking me one after another, well, you’re so innocent you just tell them everything.
[David]: She remembers one woman in particular.
[Marta Álvarez]: I’ll never forget. They called her La Pájaro [the Bird]. So, La Pájaro stands in the… the middle of the cafeteria to say, “Well, this is Marta. She’s from Santuario and she’s going to be here with us for a little while.”
[David]: Marta’s idea of prison was what she had seen on TV and in movies, and had mostly to do with men’s prisons: hostile, aggressive, violent people and constant fights. And yes, certainly that happened there too, but that reception was better than she expected.
When they stopped eating, around 6 in the evening, they brought her to her cell. It was about 2 square meters and had a bed, a mattress, and a kind of rack for hanging up clothes. There was a window up above, almost reaching the roof. It was hard to reach it and see outside, but at least air and sunlight could come in.
[Marta Álvarez]: When I… when they put me in that cell, I heard the guard locked the door, supposedly to go to sleep, I felt relieved. I felt like I was safe there. I felt there like no one was going to kill me.
[David]: The case was taken on by the District Attorney’s Office of Santuario, which would now investigate the case and prosecute her at trial. Then her trial began.
[Marta Álvarez]: I thought no… the justice system, with the lawyer, the evidence, my family is going to help me. And they always helped me: the… the statements and everything. Me, all my friends…. I mean, it’s not like I go around killing people. I didn’t kill someone to rob them. No one paid me. I wasn’t a hitman who went to kill him, who… you understand?
[David]: Instead, what she did could be considered legitimate self-defense. She didn’t expect to get out immediately. At the end of the day, it was a homicide, and she had fired the gun. Besides, according to the Penal Code of Colombia, it was more serious because it was her brother. But they could take into account the violence that she was a victim of and how that led her to commit that crime. Her sister and her nephews testified to that.
There was also the fact that she turned herself in the very beginning, and perhaps that would help to reduce a possible sentence. But while that was being worked out, Marta had to stay in prison.
From the start, her relationship with the other inmates was cordial.
[Marta Álvarez]: There were people in there for all sorts of crimes. There were people who were there for kidnapping, for homicide, for Law 30. There was everything.
[David]: For Law 30, in other words, activities related to drugs. Some of them were aggressive, so Marta tried not to get involved with them to avoid trouble. But in general, she got along well with her fellow inmates. Her sister visited her every so often and brought her food or books, and that helped make her prison stay a little more bearable.
The routine was the same every day: they got up between five and six in the morning, they showered, they ate breakfast in the cafeteria, and they were given time to do workshops and other activities. From the beginning, Marta decided to teach English classes, to also be able to reduce her possible sentence. Around 11 a.m. they ate lunch, then, around 1 in the afternoon, they resumed their activities. Then they ate dinner at four. Marta played indoor soccer with her fellow inmates and at six they were put back in their cells
Aside from that, every day they brought them out to the patio to count them.
[Marta Álvarez]: When that happened there were barely 60 of us. So we fit 10, 20, 30 in a line. And every morning we lined up, bam, bam, bam. Every night bam, bam, bam. At noon, bam, bam, bam. They counted us three times a day
[David]: And when they were standing in formation the director of the prison was always there.
[Marta Álvarez]: He would stand in front of all of us. He was a short old man. I would say he was about 60 or so, chubby, with light-colored eyes, a big sort of Hitler mustache. And would stand up there with his hands in the… behind his back, and he would walk from one side to the other. “Lowlifes,” he would shout at us. “Criminals. You’re not at a hotel. You’re in prison. Here no one is going to baby you, you ingrates.”
[David]: The director, like the guards, administrators, and boards of most prisons, was a part of INPEC, the public entity that was in charge of the correctional centers in Colombia.
[Marta Álvarez]: So the first time, well, that I got in formation…hey, I laughed. that man made me laugh. And I was there, he said, “And what are you laughing about?” And I said, “Oh, of you. You’re so funny.” That was the first day I made an enemy of him.
[David]: The director asked one of the guards to tell him Marta’s full name. That didn’t seem like a big deal to her. She didn’t think she had done anything so serious. But a few days later, the other inmates started telling her about the abuses the authorities committed in the prison. One of those stories was about another inmate that Marta didn’t know.
[Marta Álvarez]: And then they told me, “Hey, look, can you imagine that there’s a… a woman named Monza” — I remember — “Monza’s been in the hole for six months.”
[David]: Marta had never seen Monza and had barely heard of her at the time.
[Marta Álvarez]: And I said, “Six months? Why? What did she do?” They say, “No, they caught her kissing another woman.”
[David]: Marta couldn’t believe it. They told her it wasn’t the first time they used that kind of punishment. Clearly homophobic punishments.
She was so upset that by the next Sunday when there were visiting hours, she asked her sister to bring her a copy of the Constitution and the Penitentiary and Prison Code. She wanted to know if it was permissible by law for someone to be locked up in a cell for six months. But in her reading, she realized that a person deprived of liberty could only be put in solitary confinement for a maximum of two months, and that was for serious infractions and crimes like attempted escape, possession of arms, or theft inside the prison.
[Marta Álvarez]: I asked the girls, “And why don’t you do something about it?” “No, they’ll put us in the hole, they’ll take away our visiting privileges.”
[David]: And there was one punishment that all of them feared: transfer to another prison, in another city.
[Marta Álvarez]: “Look we have family here, and if I’m transferred, they won’t be able to visit me somewhere else if I’m transferred, and this and that.” Women who have children said, “No, when will I see my son again, my daughter. No, it’s better if we stay quiet.”
[David]: A little later, Marta started feeling persecuted. At that time, she had a girlfriend who visited her from time to time, but she would go as a friend. They weren’t conjugal visits, that right that by law heterosexual couples do have.
That term isn’t used anymore. Now it’s called an “intimate visit”, but by that time, 1994, the law talked about conjugal visits because they were between people who were legally married. Heterosexual people could meet with their partners in their cells or private spaces.
The unions of same-sex couples, on the other hand, were not legally recognized, so they couldn’t receive conjugal visits, much less one that included any kind of privacy. They just had to meet in view of everyone and hide their displays of affection.
[Marta Álvarez]: It was difficult. It was very hard. We gave each other kisses in secret, but that was, well… it was very hard because everyone was watching. And if they saw, they would probably put me in the hole.
[David]: And yes, after a while they sent her to the hole, but not exactly for kissing her girlfriend. Even though Marta wasn’t trying to start trouble with anyone, even less so with the prison staff, one day she was called to the director’s office because supposedly she had tried to hit a guard with a broom.
[Marta Álvarez]: Lies! But no, they didn’t believe me, and they put me in the hole.
[David]: For Marta, it was easy to think that these punishments were because of her sexual orientation, and that they had probably seen her kissing her girlfriend. Besides, she knew that the guard who had accused her was especially hard on lesbians and was always making aggressive comments towards them.
[Marta Álvarez]: That woman was horrible. Horrible, horrible, horrible. One of the most hom… homophobic people I’ve ever met. She got me thrown in there.
[David]: It was a small cell with cement walls. It had a small bunk of the same material and a bathroom with a hole in the roof, probably to ventilate the space, but it also let in rain and sun. The toilet didn’t work, so the waste would get clogged and Marta would have to get water from the shower to get it to move through the piping. It had a thick metal door, and they gave her food through a little slot. There was no electricity, and all she could have was writing materials.
[Marta Álvarez]: And in there, well, what did I do? I wrote day and night, that was it. And it wasn’t so much that I was there but knowing that I was in there for no reason. It’s the injustice that makes me angry.
[David]: On the hole, she had a lot of time to reflect on her past. She especially remembered what she had experienced when she was a teenager: discrimination and violence.
It was hard, so hard that at one point she got death threats in Santuario, just for being a lesbian. It was so serious that when Marta was 19 years old, her dad asked her to go to Boston, in the United States. Her dad owned several pharmacies and had sent his oldest son to that city. He was gay and suffered the same harassment.
So for her dad, the idea was for Marta to go live with her brother, study there, finish high school at a school where she wouldn’t be discriminated against, and then she could go to college and study. But Marta didn’t like the idea very much. She didn’t want to go to Boston, and despite the threats, she says she never felt afraid in Santuario. She never had.
[Marta Álvarez]: It was rage, a lot of rage toward… toward all the straight people, toward… toward the Church, toward the whole system. And.. and I left, not because I was afraid; I left for my dad.
[David]: Because her dad asked her to. But in the end, for Marta, it was the best decision. In Boston, she was free and happy, and after a few years, she became a US citizen. She studied computer science in college, then studied pharmacy and started working. Her life changed, and that was when she learned that it was possible to live in peace regardless of your sexual orientation.
[Marta Álvarez]: And I got used to living that kind of life. That’s why when I encounter all this discrimination, all this homophobia, I’m like, “What is this?” It’s like I came from another world, do you understand? And for me, it wasn’t… experiencing this kind of mistreatment was inconceivable, and I didn’t understand why. I mean, no… no… I couldn’t.
[David]: Ten days later, and after losing about 11 pounds, Marta left solitary confinement, and decided to do something to change her situation. She started doing a little research and contacted The Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, the entity in charge of protecting and promoting human rights in Colombia. That same entity had reviewed Monza’s case, the inmate who spent six months in the hole, and thanks to that process she was let out.
Marta wrote them a formal letter describing these abuses, but she also asked for their help having her right to an intimate visit with her partner be recognized.
The person who read that letter was this woman, who is also named Marta.
[Marta Tamayo]: I’m Marta Tamayo. I’m 64 years old. I’m retired. I studied law. I was a lawyer and militant feminist as well for many years.
[David]: At that time, she was regional ombudsman, and for a few years she had started working for the human rights of people deprived of liberty, at another state agency.
[Marta Tamayo]: It was the first time in the country a line of activity was being done to prevent the violation of human rights in prisons. And that’s where I see what’s going on in the prisons and differences between men and women.
[David]: In 1990, she started visiting most correctional facilities in the country. That was when she realized that, for example, while men were sent to solitary confinement for serious infractions or crimes, women, like we already mentioned, were sent there for kissing another woman.
[Marta Tamayo]: For me it was like, “Wow, what’s going on here?” It wasn’t just that, but in men’s prisons, all guests — kids, mom, dad, friends — could meet them at the cells, in the hallways. In the women’s prisons, they could only have visitors on the patio.
[David]: And at that time, not even conjugal visits for heterosexual women were permitted.
[Marta Tamayo]: And what they said in the men’s prisons was that they needed heterosexual intimate visits and they would bring in prostitutes. And what they said was that they needed to because if they didn’t, the men would “go gay,” like that, literally.
[David]: One possible explanation for the gender inequality, according to her, is that when several women’s prisons were created in Colombia, in the late ’50s, they weren’t prisons as such, but rather reformatories run by Catholic nuns. And for that reason, those religious norms and morals prevailed even when those places were passed into the hands of the State.
[Marta Tamayo]: So, there was very strict control of women’s bodies. Women couldn’t talk tough. They couldn’t say bad words. They read the letters that women sent to make sure they didn’t say bad words.
[David]: And that was still happening at the time, in the late ’80s to the early ’90s. The lawyer tried to look for solutions using the legal mechanisms that existed, but there wasn’t much she could do. It was only with the new political Constitution of 1991 and the changes that were made in terms of human rights that she had more tools at her disposal to demand that the State protect persons deprived of liberty. But in order to accomplish that, first, she needed to find someone who represented the problem.
[Marta Tamayo]: A woman who would stand up for, we’ll call it, her lesbian practices, and would be able to put up a fight.
[David]: In other words, to demonstrate that the State was mistreating people based on their sexual orientation and demand that their fundamental rights be represented. But at that time, she couldn’t find anyone.
Then, in 1993, she moved on to be the regional ombudsman, and one year later, she got a letter from Marta Álvarez in which she described the homophobia in that prison and her decision to fight for the right to intimate visits.
[Marta Tamayo]: I said, the virgin has appeared before me because that was really what I was looking for a long time.
[David]: She decided to get in contact with Marta Álvarez.
[Marta Álvarez]: So Marta Tamayo came, she interviewed me, and we talked. She was very friendly, uh, very ready to do something, to help. She seemed very honest to me like her intentions were serious, and she honestly was very, very, very interested, in what? In doing something. Then she even said to me, “Martica, are you sure you want to stand up for this? Because there’s going to be blowback against you.”
[Marta Tamayo]: Because that had never been seen in the country: a woman being given permission to have an intimate visit.
[David]: A lesbian woman. And even though the lawyer was excited at the idea of helping her with her case…
[Marta Tamayo]: I think I was afraid of getting into that fight because there was a lot of conservative sentiment. Because… because even at the Office of the Ombudsman there was no uni… unified position.
[David]: A unified position that respected LGBTI rights. So what she was doing could go against the institution she represented. But that didn’t dissuade Marta Álvarez, who was tired of so much abuse and injustice.
[Marta Álvarez]: I said, “Yeah, let’s do it. There’s no one else. There’s no one else to do it, so I’ll do it. Do it. I’ll risk whatever I have to.”
[Daniel]: Through this case, the Office of the Ombudsman could demand protection from the State, not just for the rights of one person in particular, but for the rights of many persons deprived of liberty in Colombia. And without a doubt, it would also be a fight for the rights of the LGBTI population in general. For them, it was worth it, but the consequences, as they expected, would be very difficult.
We’ll be back after the break
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, Marta Álvarez and Marta Tamayo had decided to join forces to fight against mistreatment and homophobic discrimination and demand that homosexual individuals be afforded the same right that heterosexuals have: the right to intimate visits.
David Trujillo continues the story.
[David]: From the moment the two Martas came in contact with one another, the retaliation started. To Marta Álvarez, the reason was evident.
[Marta Álvarez]: They knew what I… that I had complained to the ombudsman, Everything was stirred up, all stirred up. Then I went ten Sundays without visits. Do you know what ten Sundays without visits is like? Two months and three weeks without visits. So I spent that time in the hole or without visits.
[David]: But they decided to keep going. So the first thing Marta had to do was formally request a visit from her partner. She still hadn’t been sentenced, so she had to make her request to the district attorney handling her case in Santuario. Just like a heterosexual person would have to.
[Marta Álvarez]: So, yes, I asked the district attorney. It was the 33rd district attorney of Santuario, and the DA said yes. Done, it was granted.
[David]: The DA took five days to give that authorization. They sent a formal letter to the director of the prison telling him to take care of the administrative issues, permit entry to Marta’s girlfriend, and prepare a location for her visit
But that letter supposedly never made it into the director’s hands, so the DA sent it again 20 days later. But still, the director didn’t respond. In September, two months after the first letter from the DA, the ombudsman sent all of the documentation of the request that Marta had made, but still, nothing happened.
In January of 1995, seeing that the director wasn’t responding, the lawyer…
[Marta Tamayo]: I presented a tutelage as the ombudsman to get them to respond and respect her right to intimate visits.
[David]: And well, for those of you who aren’t Colombian, here we should explain what a tutelage is. A tutelage is a judicial mechanism created in the 1991 Constitution, and it needs to be approved by a national-level judge. It’s a very quick and simple legal recourse that allows people to defend their fundamental rights when they’re violated.
The lawyer asked, first, for the director of the prison to respond to her request. And second, for Marta Álvarez to be guaranteed the visit from her partner in the same conditions that would be afforded to a heterosexual couple. INPEC, which is the institution in charge of prisons in Colombia, had to respect her right to equality and the free development of personality. After a few days, a judge approved the tutelage.
On the one hand, he ruled that the director of the prison must respond to the request to grant Marta an intimate visit. That formal response must be made in writing in the following 15 days as is required by law, and effectively he did. But the response was that he wasn’t going to approve the visit because he considered it, and here I’m quoting the text of the document, “anomalous,” “shameful,” “denigrating,” and “obscene.”
But the lawyer had also requested in the tutelage that Marta be guaranteed her visit regardless of what the director decided. But with respect to that request, the judge ruled against her for three reasons:
[Marta Tamayo]: The first argument he gave was that it was for security because someone could suddenly come in and switch places with the other person and run away. Secondly, that it was an immoral act. And the third argument was that conjugal visits had a reproductive purpose and that in this case, it didn’t.
[David]: A month later, INPEC decided to transfer Marta to another prison about an hour and a half away from there, after having tried to be with her partner for almost a year.
[Marta Álvarez]: They transferred me in a van, handcuffed, and those curves — bum, bum, bum — one of those old vans that gets… that burning og gas… gas smell that gets in the van and you don’t have any room. There’s no… no ventilation. I got horribly sick. Horrible sick: vomiting, diarrhea, everything. Uh, we got there. Oh, no, it was so… so depressing. Awful, awful, awful.
[David]: Marta went from one prison where at least she had space to do some exercise to one that was much smaller and that had very poorly maintained facilities.
[Marta Álvarez]: There was one room and two people slept in there. There was a small patio. It had… it had very tall walls with bars. And then as soon as they transferred me, I called Marta Tamayo.
[Marta Tamayo]: And the next day I went to that prison to visit her and see what conditions she was in. And I saw Marta; well she looked gaunt, sad, run-down. It was very hard. It was very hard. I can still feel it. Oh, I get… I get a thing here. It was very hard for her.
[David]: The transfer had made Marta sick, and that, on top of her frustration at having lost the tutelage and drastically reduced space at that prison, was affecting her psychologically. The lawyer started pushing forward a process to get her taken from that place and brought to the prison in Santuario, near her family. But that prison in Santuario, wasn’t a women’s prison, and there wasn’t an area for women either, so in three months, thanks to the ombudsman’s process, she was returned to the first prison she was held in.
It was the best option at the time. Marta already knew the place, the other women, and she had begun to adapt. But of course, the officials at that prison didn’t want her there. When she got there…
[Marta Álvarez]: All the guards were like, “Oh, no, no, she’s back, no.” I was a thorn in their sides.
[David]: The news of Marta’s tutelage appeared in local media and people in the city were starting to talk about it. That tutelage went on to the appellate court and the topic was so controversial that even the bishop of the city contacted the lawyer.
[Marta Tamayo]: When I was waiting on the appellate ruling, he… he called me on the phone and he wanted to talk about the situation with me. I said that of course, I would meet with him at my office.
[David]: When they met, the bishop asked her not to follow through with the process for the moral good of society.
[Marta Tamayo]: And I told him, well, that I understood his position, but that it was a State matter, it was a civil matter in which the church didn’t have a say. So, well no, there was nothing I could do.
[David]: So everything stayed the way it was and that was the end of the discussion. But maybe that something that motivated the bishop and that caused so much social backlash in a society so conservative was what made the judge ratify the ruling.
The Constitutional Court could review the tutela, but in the end, they didn’t. In other words, it’s not that they confirmed or repealed the decisions of the other two courts, but they chose not to review the tutelage and leave the issue as it was. With that, they were out of legal recourse in Colombia.
On the other hand, Marta’s criminal trial for killing her brother was resumed a year after she went to prison. They started bringing her to several hearings in Santuario. Marta didn’t deny that she killed her brother, but the defense insisted that she committed the crime out of anger and intense pain for all the violence that she was a victim of.
But also, she had done it in legitimate self-defense because she knew her life was at risk and there were witnesses who confirmed that. All these factors, according to the lawyer, should be taken into account by the judge when making the decision.
But the DA said that it was an aggravated homicide because, as it says in the law, it was against her brother, and it couldn’t be thought of as self-defense because the defense was not proportional to the attack. In other words, her brother hadn’t threatened her with a firearm.
Marta still knew they were going to sentence her to some prison time for what she had done. That wasn’t a surprise for her. But one Saturday in 1995, a year after going to prison…
[Marta Álvarez]: They call me to the director’s office; the psychologist and the director are there. “Sit down, Marta.”
[David]: Marta knew that at any moment they were going to notify her of her sentence, and, from what she read in the Penal Code and what she had discussed with the lawyer who represented her in that trial, she had calculated that it would be about 18 years.
[Marta Álvarez]: When… the two of them were looking at each other, and I was like, “What? Tell me what happened.” And they didn’t say anything. They were just looking at each other. And I said, “No, this is bad. This isn’t good”. And I said, “How much time did I get?” That’s when the director tells me, “33 years, four months.” That was when I felt like my soul left my body again. Because I… I felt like I died there. I’m never getting out of here. That’s it. I died.
[David]: She left the director’s office without saying anything else.
[Marta Álvarez]: What I felt was rage more than anything else because it seemed unfair to me.
[David]: They had reduced her initial sentence, which was 40 years because she turned herself in, but that was it.
[Marta Álvarez]: I said, “Well, 17, 15… 15 to 20, that’s fine. OK, I’ll do it. I… That’s fine with me. It’s OK. I have to answer for things,” but I didn’t think it would be double.
[David]: Since she was 35 at the time, she would get out at the age of 68. A whole life in prison. The first thing she did was call her girlfriend. She told her not to come back.
[Marta Álvarez]: I said, “No, it’s not fair. It’s not fair, because I’m going to die in prison, and you’re very young. Live your life on the outside. Eventually, that’s going to happen anyway, so I’ll do it on the inside. You do it on the outside.” And that’s it
[David]: Their relationship ended there. In March of 1996, they transferred her to the prison in Medellín because she had a high sentence and they needed to transfer her to a larger, higher-security prison.
Though Marta appealed her sentence, the court ended up upholding the 33 years in prison, so she had to resign herself to living her life incarcerated. It didn’t make sense to think about her life on the outside, not even in the future.
[Marta Álvarez]: There was no future. When you’re in prison you don’t have a future. What future? Tell me. What are you going to do in prison? So plans? No, you don’t have plans in prison. You live day to day.
[David]: And in her day to day, Marta taught English, she did courses and workshops they were offered, and she played soccer when they could. But she was also becoming aware of mistreatment on the part of the people running the prison.
[Marta Álvarez]: This discrimination against lesbians. It was the same as always: lesbians go to the hole, they insult you when no one is watching, like they did with me. They hit you when no one is watching.
[David]: Policies of terror, transfers, separating couples and families. It was already enough that she had to spend the rest of her life in prison, they at least should guarantee her and the other women their fundamental rights.
[Marta Álvarez]: I became an activist in prison because… because I saw, I saw that something had to be done. It wasn’t fair what they were doing to the inmates. It wasn’t fair.
[David]: Marta started teaching the other women how to present tutelages or complaints with the ombudsman. The first thing she did in the prison in Medellín was form a human rights committee.
And around that time, with Marta Tamayo, the lawyer, they decided to take her case of the violation of the right to an intimate visit to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is the attorney.
[Marta Tamayo]: I was there to, shall we say, to fight too, but, it’s Marta who’s saying, “I want to take this fight for rights to the very end.”
[David]: The plan was for this international court to rule on the matter. And what they were expecting, aside from their granting Marta the visit and asking the Colombian government for some kind of reparation for having violated her right, was that it would set a precedent on the continent for the protection of LGBTI persons deprived of liberty.
At that time, 1996, this wasn’t such a common legal tool among Colombian lawyers because in general, they didn’t know a lot about international humanitarian law. But this was an option that some victims of the State and human rights defenders were choosing when they saw that their complaints weren’t being heard.
And that, again, brought negative consequences for Marta inside the prison. They started punishing her even when she was always rated well in the disciplinary reports from the psychologists and people who managed the education programs.
[Marta Álvarez]: I didn’t fight with anyone. I’m afraid of getting punched. I was always respectful of the guards.
[David]: That’s why, for Marta, even though they never said it explicitly, it wasn’t so hard to guess the reasons behind the abuses against her.
For Marta Tamayo, the lawyer, it’s very clear. On the one hand, she believes that the State, but in particular the INPEC, the people in charge of the prisons, were very upset about the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but also…
[Marta Tamayo]: Because inside the prison, Marta was also fighting for other rights. I mean, Marta didn’t just fight for the right to intimate visits, but also other kinds of mistreatment, kinds of inequality there, many things that happen in… in prisons.
[David]: And the more mistreatment and abuse she got, the more Marta wanted to fight for her rights and those of her fellow inmates.
[Marta Álvarez]: I was a good inmate. Who was rebellious, yes.
[David]: When she saw injustices. Even when the director of the prison told her threateningly not to cause any more problems. Marta said,
[Marta Álvarez]: “If you don’t mistreat the other women or me, there’ll be no problem. But if you do mistreat the other or mistreat me, we’re going to have a lot of problems.”
[David]: No violence. She’s referring to complaints to the Office of the Ombudsman, or strikes by the human rights committee. But that really irritated the prison officials in Medellín, and since there was nothing they could do to control her, after one year there, they decided to transfer her. Again.
[Marta Álvarez]: From there they transferred me to Bogotá, arguing that I was going to start a riot. They made up this persona around me, that for… that I was a risk to, well, the prison.
[David]: In March 1998, after eight months in the prison in Bogotá, the story repeated itself. The only method the INPEC could find to get rid of her and the problem she represented was to transfer her again and again.
[Marta Tamayo]: She was in Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta…
[David]: And others. Seventeen prisons in total.
[Marta Tamayo]: Every time it was like, “Run.” Marta could call me, “They transferred me here. They transferred me there.”
[Marta Álvarez]: If you had… if you got a girlfriend in prison they would transfer you or her.
[David]: That pulls the rug out from under you. It hurts.
[Marta Álvarez]: Because I was there alone. There’s a lot to be afraid of. So you find someone who gives you support, companionship, love, care, whatever, and as soon as they find out they take her away. I think that’s the hardest thing that can happen in a women’s prison.
[David]: She didn’t have much contact with the outside. Marta received some visits from friends, but the only consistent visitor was her sister, who tried to keep her company wherever she was, even if she had to put up with abuse from INPEC officials.
[Marta Álvarez]: They wouldn’t let my sister in. They humiliated her at the door. They turned her way. My sister also ended up with some trauma.
[David]: Until the practice was banned in 2005, women were required to wear skirts when visiting prisons, and they were checked when they entered and when they left, the argument being that they could bring in drugs or some kind of weapon. For that reason, according to Marta, being in prison…
[Marta Álvarez]: It doesn’t just affect you. It also affects the people who are with you, who are closest to you.
[David]: Your family. But still, her sister made every effort to visit her, but since she couldn’t travel so far and so often, at several of those prisons she never had any visitors.
In one of those transfers, to Cali, in 1998, Marta met the person who to this she still considers the love of her life. One morning, while she was on the prison patio…
[Marta Álvarez]: I remember… I sat down on a bench, and she was sitting in front of me. I see her and I say, “What a pretty woman,” I thought. She was taller than me. Her hair was… it was like wavy, but it was blond. She had honey-colored eyes and a pretty smile. No, she was beautiful. She was beautiful.
[David]: She was drawing on her eyebrows with eyeliner and looking in the mirror. Marta went up to her, and all she could think to say was:
[Marta Álvarez]: “Wow, your eyebrows look really even.” And she looked at me and smiled. And I kept looking at her because I was still sitting there and every day I saw her doing the same thing. Until one day I said, “Let’s play basketball.” And she said, “Let’s go.”
[David]: They started shooting baskets, and at one point, Marta said…
[Marta Álvarez]: “You’re going to make me do something bad.” And she ignored me. She always ignored me, but she would smile. “Listen, you’re going to make me do something bad.” She said, “OK, let’s do something bad.”
[David]: From that moment they started their relationship, in secret, of course.
[Marta Álvarez]: It was hard. It was hard because we lived in… in a dorm, and there were bunk beds: one here and the other there, one here and one there. And I get in… in her bunk at night. And we were very quiet, (whispering)- That was, that was also difficult, but it was a nice adventure, because… because of how difficult it was, because… because of all the things that have to be held back.
[David]: Their secret lasted a few months, until INPEC realized they were in a relationship and decided to transfer them together, in an attempt to get rid of the supposed problem without making a big deal out of it. So they went through four prisons, and the relationship continued. But in the end, after dating for more than a year, they were separated for good and sent to different cities.
[Marta Álvarez]: I cried a lot. That was what hurt me the most. She was the love of my life. I don’t know where she is, if she’s dead or alive, I don’t know. We lost contact with each other. She still had years left in prison, and in prison, well, you get involved in other things out of loneliness.
[David]: In other words, she started other relationships.
In 1999, the Commission said they would review her case, so her lawyer started meeting with State institutions in order to come to some kind of agreement. The plan was to anticipate the Commission’s pronouncement about the right to intimate visits for same-sex couples because they could even sanction the State for violating that right.
At that time, she didn’t have a partner outside of the prison to visit her, but the objective was to remove any legal obstacles that would get in the way, not just for her, but for all LGBTI persons deprived of liberty. This is her lawyer again.
[Marta Tamayo]: We only had two or three meetings. We talked, we nailed down a few points about… about well, how to move this along, how to reg… regulate this and the INPEC stopped showing up. In other words, the INPEC always failed to fulfill what…. what we agreed on in those meetings.
[David]: We sent a formal request to the INPEC to do an interview on the matter, but they told us that for now, they wouldn’t speak on the issue.
Be that as it may, at that time the actions of the INPEC weren’t a good strategy because, on the one hand, the case started getting noticed by human rights organizations, and on the other, since Marta was a US citizen, the embassy was already paying attention to what was happening with her and demanding better conditions.
Besides all that, word started to spread around the prisons and when she would arrive at a new prison they would already know who she was.
[Marta Álvarez]: I would arrive and without meeting me the inmates would say, “Marta’s Álvarez is here, yeah, yeah, yeah!” All happy. “Wow, yes, she’s here, she’s here, so they won’t mistreat us. Yes, how great. She fights for us.” The guards and the directors, on the other hand, were like: “Right, you don’t call the shots around here.”
[David]: In 2001, Marta told her lawyer that a friend of hers in prison wanted to request an intimate visit with her girlfriend. The lawyer’s advice was to present a tutelage requesting the right: since this was a different case with new facts and people involved, maybe now the judges would be more flexible.
[Marta Álvarez]: So one Sunday, Marta came. Another lawyer came. We sat in the visitation area to talk about the tutelage and then they brought me some supporting legal documents to include in the tutelage. They told me, “No, do it yourself.”
[David]: In all that time in prison, Marta had been studying the Constitution and legal processes, so she was fully aware of how to do it. Her friend, the one who wanted to present a tutela, also encouraged her.
[Marta Álvarez]: “Yes, Marta, do it yourself. You can do it.” And I was like, “Uh, no, how can I?” “Yes, Martica,” Tamayo said, “yes, do it. Do it. Do it. You can do it.”
[David]: They convinced her. Marta sat at the computer in the prison library and wrote the tutelage, basing it on the Penitentiary and Prison Code and on the Political Constitution. She also used supporting documents that her lawyers sent her, like the backing of the Office of the Ombudsman and other very important rulings in favor of LGBTI rights that the Constitutional Court had given and that didn’t exist when Marta presented her first tutelage. In the end, she focused on asking the Court to defend the rights to equality, intimacy, and the free development of personality.
Almost a month later, the judge in the trial court ruled against her. They weren’t surprised. That had happened before. The next step was to have it reviewed in the appellate court, and maybe there they would take into account all of the supporting documents that accompanied the tutelage.
Two months passed until finally, in October 2001, they notified Marta’s friend of the ruling.
[Marta Álvarez]: She came out screaming and told me: “Marta, Marta! They approved it!” So, well she was really happy, you know. And I was very happy for her. Then there was the visit. She had her visit and everything. It was a big victory, a big step forward.
[David]: Because the appellate court’s ruling didn’t just require the director of that prison to grant an intimate visit to Marta’s friend, but also other people who may be going through the same situation, they could use this case as backing to have her request granted. Of course, it was very possible for the ban to come up again, but with this precedent, it was harder for a national judge, the INPEC, or anyone else to refuse to afford this right to intimate visits for the simple fact of a person’s sexual orientation
In 2002, Marta was approaching the end of her time in prison, thanks to a State decision to reduce sentences and her good behavior, her English classes, the classes she took, and her athletic activities. It had already been eight years, since she had entered prison, and now she had permission to leave for 72 hours a month.
Not long before she had been separate from a partner she had, and they were sent to different prisons. Since Marta’s friend’s case existed as precedent, Marta, on one of her 72-hour leaves, decided to travel to the prison where her girlfriend was, almost five hours away, to see her on visitation day.
[Marta Álvarez]: The director wouldn’t let me in because I needed my judicial record.
[David]: It’s a document that details a person’s judicial history. At that time, they asked anyone who went to visit an inmate for it, for security reasons, but in Marta’s case…
[Marta Álvarez]: How am I supposed to have a judicial record? Don’t they see I’m a person deprived of liberty? They wouldn’t let me in, that while she was there, I wasn’t… I wasn’t getting in. I had to go back with my things. It was raining and I went back with everything. Dead angry, furious, because that woman wouldn’t let me in.
[David]: But Marta knew that now they couldn’t deny her her right, so she presented a new tutelage basing it on her friend’s case. And this time, in November of 2002, in the trial court, they recognized her right to an intimate visit.
A month later, Marta went back to the prison where her girlfriend was. That day the director wasn’t there, but still, the guards let her in. They had to. She walked in happy.
[Marta Álvarez]: I was very happy, most of all I was proud. Like, “You humiliated me the last time I came you didn’t even let me in knowing that you could have, and now I’m here coming in”. Look I didn’t give up and I beat her and the system, everything. It was like vindication. It was like finally, finally after so much struggle, after so many transfers, so many tears, so much, so much of all of it and look. I had to wait ten years, but I went in.
[David]: And to make that victory even more conclusive, in January 2003, Marta’s right was upheld by the appellate court. And, four months later, the Constitutional Court, which this time did review the tutelage, ratified both rulings.
Marta Álvarez went free in late 2003, after nearly ten years in prison. After a short time, she went back to Boston to start a new life.
With the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ten more years had to pass, until finally in 2014, the commission made it clear the Colombian State violated Marta’s rights and recommended to improve the circumstances of LGBTI people in jails.
They agreed to compensate Marta financially and the State publicly apologized. That was in December 2017, at the women’s prison in Bogotá. That day, Marta returned to set foot in the prison after 14 years, but this time, she did as a free person. It was the first time the Colombian State apologized publicly to an LGBTI person.
[Daniel]: Marta Álvarez and Marta Tamayo are still pursuing parts of the settlement with the State because certain aspects still need to be fulfilled. Among those is verifying that every prison in the country adjusts its internal regulations to guarantee the rights of LGBTI people.
Marta Álvarez returned to Colombia in 2019 and lives near her family. She travels to the US constantly. Her case is very well known in prisons thanks to the book Mi historia la cuento yo, which was a result of the agreements and was distributed to the country’s prisons and detention centers.
Marta Tamayo retired from her job as a lawyer, though she is still a feminist activist. Marta Álvarez’s case has been one of the longest and most important in her career.
David Trujillo is a producer with Radio Ambulante. He lives in Bogotá. This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Aneris Casassus, Victoria Estrada, Xóchitl Fabián, Remy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Desirée Yépez
Fernanda Guzmán is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.