Tantrums and tiaras in Bogota prison

5th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

For the past 15 years every September, Colombian prison authorities let their hair down, and let female inmates let theirs down too. To mark the celebration of the Holy Virgin in this heavily Roman Catholic country, inmates hold concerts and -- in a beauty obsessed country -- pageants.

Bogota -- Claudia Moncada adjusted her yellow dress one last time to show off her curves. In a few minutes she was to take part in a beauty contest with a difference: the pretenders to the crown have been convicted of murder, robbery and drug trafficking.

For the past 15 years every September, Colombian prison authorities let their hair down, and let female inmates let theirs down too. To mark the celebration of the Holy Virgin in this heavily Roman Catholic country, inmates hold concerts and -- in a beauty obsessed country -- pageants.

"In Colombia there are beauty contests everywhere, it's part of our culture," said Teresa Moya, the director of Colombia's prisons, explaining the decision to hold the pageant.

For inmates it is certainly a welcome respite from the difficulties of day-to-day life behind bars.

"It is an opportunity to forget all the pain and sadness of the prison. Today the food is better, the guards are nice, and all the girls are happy," said 30-year-old Moncada, who has spent two years in prison but refuses to reveal what her crime was.

"Sorry darling, I haven't got any foundation for your legs!" shouted someone in one of the two bustling salons in the Buen Pastor prison, Bogota, where Moncada has two more years to serve.

The outburst came from Alfonso Llano, a professional hairdresser better known as "Pocho," who said he helped out because the contestants are "decent and generous girls, who once made a mistake.

"They show me lots of affection and I treat them as I would any model," he said with emotion.

Claudia Moncada was nervous. She was representing Section Four of the prison, one of only 16 prisoners out of 1,493 chosen to compete by their peers.

The other inmates were dressed in elegant white gowns lent to them by designers, and they formed a cortege as the contestants were escorted to a podium in the prison yard.

When Claudia climbed the stairs, her comrades drowned her in confetti made from old magazines, shouting words of encouragement.

She kicked off proceedings, opening four hours of concerts, parades and even a moonwalk by foreign prisoners, a homage to Michael Jackson.

Finally the jurors began their deliberations and the director of the prison stepped forward to announce the winner.

Claudia, as in 2008, was runner up. "It's like that," she said laconically, trying to contain her disappointment.

This year's winner of the Buen Pastor -- or Good Shepherd -- crown is Sonia Vergara.

She is serving a five-year sentence for a high-profile kidnapping plot, in which she aided Carlos Ayala Saavedra, a European Commission official responsible for development projects in Colombia who staged his own disappearance for ransom.

Gradually, the sense of joy evaporated into the prison's flaking concrete walls and the girls returned to their cells.

"Thank you Pocho," whispered Ninfa, one of the participants, as she embraced the hairdresser.

With tears in his eyes Pocho held her in his arms and asked "how long are you staying?"

AFP/Expatica

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