Learning Uruguay

Every day brings ????

Prison – Uruguayan style

Posted by urufish on July 19, 2007


I went to visit one of my local friends today.  Visiting friends is hardly a topic for a post but since the visit took place in the Carcel Centrale (federal prison), it’s not your typical visit.  

 The prison is located just off the busiest street in the shopping area, 3 blocks from San Jose and 18 de Julio.  Visitors are allowed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  Visiting hours on Thursday are from 11:30 to 13:30.  They limit the total number of visitors so it’s best to get there early.  If you come after 12:30, you wont be allowed in.  Once you’re in, you do not leave until 13:30.  There are no exceptions to that rule. 

The line up starts around 11:15 at the San Jose entrance.  At 11:30, they open the doors and allow people to enter, 5 at a time.   They ask you for ID.  Everyone produces cedulas, which they keep.  You are asked if you have any electronic devices, like cellphones.  If you do, you give them to the clerk with your cedula and they give you a check stub.  You can bring food, toiletries, bedding and clothes.  The prison provides basic food and a bedsheet.  It’s not heated.  Visiting family and close friends bring provisions, sheets and blankets to last until the next visit.  They take laundry back with them. 

After you hand over your cedula and tell them who you’re coming to see, you walk to another area where you are frisked.  There are 2 little rooms.  One for ladies and one for men.  I made the mistake of going into the next available room.  The matron sternly reprimanded me as I pleaded the language excuse.   As she pointed to the room beside hers, a man came out and I figured it out.  I walked in, took off my vest and handed it to the guard.  I was searched once before, in NYC, by US customs so I have a little experience with the process.  Thankfully this wasn’t as thorough.. no gloves.    He ignored the vest and patted me down.  Finding nothing of interest, he sent me off to the next room. 

I went through another checkpoint and found myself in the visitor’s room.  It was 8m x 8m, had plenty of seats and benches, and a beverage machine.  I walked up to a guard and told him who I was visiting.  He called out to another guard who appeared with my friend.  He had a big smile on his face and was happy to see me.  I asked what do we do now and he said let’s introduce you to my friends.

His friends were, in no particular order,  a bank president, a well known doctor, a navy lieutenant, an ex president of OSE (the national water company), an ex vp of another major utility and finally the most unfortunate (sacrificed), member of the La Pasiva family.  He was the guy running the concession booth in the visitors room.   I was introduced to them one by one, in English and they replied, most of them in very good English. 

Today, at this time, all the inmates were high profile, highly educated,  members of Uruguayan society.  I should have guessed it when I was standng outside in the line.  Most were nicely dressed and well behaved.  I wouldnt be surprised if this group of inmates held board meetings during the week and gave free consultas to prison staff.   

My friend took me around the corner to the prison ‘yard’.  It looked like a larger version of my ‘aire y luz’ here in the house.  The building is squarish and large.  In order to get light and air into the all the rooms/cells, you create a courtyard in the middle.  It had a brick floor and was old, but clean.  The visitor’s room was also run down, but clean.  These aren’t the kind of prisoners who write grafiti on the walls.  These people are more comfortable with spreadsheets. 

He bought a diet coke and we sat down to talk.  A few minutes later, his mom and a cousin came in.  A half hour later, a friend from the office came in.  There are no limits to the amount of visitors for an inmate.  Several had what looked like a large portion of their family, including small children and babies.  It was a very relaxed, jovial atmosphere.   The guards were talking to visitors, and vice versa.  It wasnt a formal process. 

There was a cat that served as the prisoners’ mascot.  Almost every group had at least one if not two thermos/mate’s.  The gourds and bombillas were moving around all over the room. 

Early on, I asked him what everyone was here for.  All of it was white collar crime, (you guessed that already).  They are kept on the 4th floor of the prison.  They do not associate with the ‘general’ population at any time.  Since a lot of white collar crime is prosecuted on the political level, most of these people have political affiliations – all with the parties that are out of power at the moment.    The reason they’re at this moment has a lot to do with that.  Because parties change power, they must have all agreed to make this place neutral territory, lest their own people end up there when the other party takes power and be treated poorly. 

As odd as this seems, all the inmate I met have not had a trial yet.  Just the equivalent of our preliminary hearings.  In Uruguay, you present your case in a preliminary fashion to a judge.  He decides if you’re probably guilty or not.  If he thinks you are, he sends you to jail.  You’re in there until he decides to let you out.  Your lawyer keeps bugging the judge until that happens.  Sometime after that, (assuming you’re not in for a long time), you have a real trial.  If you are found guilty, you are sentenced to time served.  If you’re not found guilty, you’re free to go.  Unfortunately, you dont get your time served back. 

Because of the political component, you can be jailed even though both the state and the defense agree that the case is weak, and a guilty verdict is not likely.  If the ruling party wants to make an example, or doesn’t like you, they pass this on to the judge and he jails you.  In the case of the the navy guy, his boss got into a fight with the judge, (not sure if that was in the court or in chambers).  The judge decided he’d had enough and put the lieutenant in jail to close the matter for the time being.   I guess when his boss apologizes to the judge, (when the next opportunity arises), he may change his mind and let him out. 

At the end of the visiting hours, a buzzer sounds.  The inmates go to the cells and the guards close the gates to the prison.  A person shows up at the exit door with 2 stacks of cedulas in hand, one for women and one for men.  They read the women off one by one.  You go to the door and pick up your cedula and the guard says have a nice day and you say, see you soon.  When the women are done, they call the men.  Same process. 


8 Responses to “Prison – Uruguayan style”

  1. gaberoo said

    Yeah, political. I hear you. Not only did they jail people (the La Pasiva guy supposedly for tax evasion; a high-profile “example” case for the government), they also expropriated some businesses I hear (they took the radio stations from the owners of CX50 Radio Independencia and Radio Diamante, I believe; also “political” in nature.). As if tax evasion weren’t engaged in by Frente Amplio people as well.
    They’d better treat the prisoners well, with the way things are going with the new tax schedule they’ve proposed, it’s a wonder they don’t have a large majority of the voters swearing they will vote for anyone BUT the Frente Amplio.

  2. urufish said

    I dont know if they expropriated the radio stations or perhaps it’s a multa they walked away from. The locals say they were nailed for a form of tax evasion. If you play commercials in Montevideo, you have to pay taxes. If you play them in Punta del Este, you dont. They owned stations in both places. They put the invoices through the PDE station. They played the commercials here in MVD. They did this for a long time. Mucho dinero.

    Similar kind of game with La Pasiva. Two sets of books. This one I personally find disgusting. Stealing directly from the government by evading taxes or not reportig income is one thing. Charging customers the IVA and pocketing it is a different thing. The interesting thing about La Pasiva is the old man (family patriarch), promoted an underling to be the head hauncho prior to the DGI nailing them. The kid does the time. Only in Uruguay eh?

    Calling it political is a tough call. In both cases, the law was broken. Everyone knows that. In the US, (and to a lesser extent in Candada), you do the crime, you do the time. The problem here is that until recently, it was a national obsession, evading taxes at all levels. Take a look at license plates in Montevideo. You see tons and tons of PDE. Why? Because license plates are cheap in PDE. So anyone who owns a tent in Maldonado, registers their car there. If you get stopped by the cops, you need to show a utility bill with a Maldonado address and you’re OK. So people run electricity, water or a phone into the tent.

    These companies are being made examples of, as was my friend. The FA wants to show they mean business. That’s fine. As long as they’re even handed. Nailing their own supporters in the process. Haven’t seen that yet. Maybe that’s a sign?

  3. Anonymous said

    Ha, I have fond memories of Carcel Central visits. My brother did three months over a boardroom battle, basically. What happened was, my father was a board member and handled the advertising account of the leading poultry company at the time, Pollos Moro, now defunct. He basically helped Moro build up to a very large business, from very humble and unsophisticated origins. Then one day, this Argentine guy shows up and decides he will take over the company from within. So he has my father kicked out of the board, my father reacts with a heart attack, and as he’s recovering in hospital, Moro notifies my father that his advertising agency will no longer handle the account. At that point, my eldest brother goes to visit the Argie guy, punches him ONCE, he lands on the floor, no injuries, my brother gets 3 months in jail (through a corrupt judge bribed, of course.) So we used to go visit once a week, and he was doing more time than a football player who had killed another one on the pitch. Things were very relaxed at the time, there was a guy who was allowed to go across the street to buy food, because he bought food for all the inmates. And we were not searched, at least I don’t remember that at all…

  4. urufish said

    Thanks for those comments.. it gives future expat readers a better undersanding of how the system works..

  5. gaberoo said

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that the FA just expropriated the stations for no reason; yes, it was for tax evasion as was the closing of several La Pasiva shops. I didn’t know that “wrinkle” about pocketing the VAT (IVA); that is pretty low.
    The problem is that rarely are these crackdowns non-political (that is, yes a crime was committed and you should do the time if found guilty, or pay the fine, whichever is deemed appropriate, but in a country where tax evasion is widespread the question then becomes “who do you target”).
    I don’t know whether these two businesses were the only two large businesses evading taxes–not likely–or if the degree of the tax evasion was particularly large–possibly–or if they’d backed another political party in previous elections…Don’t know. A friend of mine implied that political reasons may have been part of the reason they chose these two, but it’s good to hear the impressions you’ve received from the locals there.

  6. Santiago said

    Hi; In the case of the radio stations, you don’t ‘own’ a frequency – you lease it from the state (a ‘Concesión’). In the case of the radio stations, the lease was terminated.

    These leases are heavily politized (after all, if you control mass media, you control mass thought), and the adjudicating process is quite corrupt.

    But it is not an expropiation – like eminent domain -, again, that would imply ownership of a certain range on the electromagnetic spectrum, something that is not possible here.

  7. Marcelo said

    I remember the the Berth Rupenian I grow up with Independencia and all the staff,it was in another time.Since “democracy” arrived to Uruguay everything change and may Rupenian make money with some fraude I dont know it,but is threr in Uruguay somebody real,real clean,ther is no corrupcion? Again I dont know about Rupenian but I can tell you that just looks into de Aduanas,the Despachantes,politics all depends who you know and how much you have…
    If you drive a Volkswagen around Pocitos or Punta del Este you are mmmmhhhh!!! just you are Now if you drivr a nice Mercedes Benz convertible now you’re talking you are “the guy with the Mercedes” got it?
    A case I know is that a construction company called Atlantico Construcciones and his owner ask for money ahead to start a construction,many people make a deposit and the mayotity get screw,this is a fraud,this is a crime,well for the police and the justice it’s not,can you explain me it?


  8. Marcelo said

    The company Atlantico construcciones the owner Edgardo Raskin be careful people,Uruguay he advertise on Internet based in lies.

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