Book Review: Colombia Jail Journal

Reviewed: Colombia Jail Journal, by James Monaghan, Dingle Co. Kerry, Ireland: Brandon Books (2007) 

For nearly three years, Sinn Fein activist James Monaghan was held inside various Colombia jails, along with two other Sinn Fein supporters, and falsely charged by the Colombian army, the U.S. State Department and the British government with having spent his time in Colombia giving military training to FARC guerrillas.  In Colombia Jail Journal Monaghan both tells what life was like for "The Colombia Three" inside Colombia’s prisons and exposes how the Colombian government, the U.S. Embassy and the UK government fabricated their case against the three Irish Republicans, who were ultimately found innocent by a Colombia court judge of "training FARC guerrillas in Colombia."

In the prologue to his book, Monaghan admits that "The Colombia Three" were "traveling using passports in different people’s names to hide our real identities" when they were arrested on August 11, 2001 by soldiers of the Colombian army at Bogota’s Airport.  But in Chapter 1, Monaghan indicates that between the time he and the two other Irish Republicans–Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley–arrived in Colombia "towards the end of June 2001" and their August 11, 2001 arrest, all they ever did was visit the de-militarized zone where peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government were being held, and just discussed politics with senior FARC people (as did foreign visitors from countries other than Ireland). In addition, "when we were not involved in a discussion, which was a lot of the time, we explored the roads and forest," writes Monaghan.

So in Chapter 2, Monaghan describes how surprised he was when, after being taken to a Colombian Army Interrogation Center and given a fabricated forensic test by "an American expert from the Embassy," he, Connolly and McCauley were suddenly accused of being "top explosives experts from the IRA, in Colombia to train the FARC."

Having been falsely accused of training FARC members, the "Colombia Three" were then faced with the problem of surviving inside Colombia’s prison system.  Besides including imprisoned left-wing FARC guerrillas (who would likely try to protect the three Irish Republicans for internationalist solidarity reasons), Colombia’s prison population also included many imprisoned members of the right-wing paramilitary death squads who might regard the "Colombia Three" as legitimate targets for assassination while they were imprisoned, because of the false "trainers of FARC" allegations.  Much of the book includes a description of the various ways Monaghan, Connolly and McCauley and their supporters inside and outside the prison walls minimized the risk of them being killed in prison, while they were awaiting a trial that would clear their names.

Besides describing the hardships and human rights violations he experienced along with the other prisoners who are incarcerated within Colombia’s high-security prisons (which are under the supervision of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons), Monaghan also describes the individual personalities, life histories and daily activities of the various imprisoned Colombians he encounters during his time in Colombia’s jails.  In addition, Monaghan mixes into the book some description of the historic and current political situation in Colombia and the anti-democratic role that the U.S. government has played in Colombia historically and currently, written from an anti-imperialist political perspective.

While inside Colombia’s high-security jails, Monaghan also filled up his time prior to his trial by getting into painting and drawing.  Interspersed throughout the book are sketches of scenes inside the Colombia prisons, portraits of visitors and some of the people with whom Monaghan was imprisoned, and images of some of the cards he painted while in prison.

If you don’t know very much about how the political system and the U.S. Embassy in Colombia currently operates and want to learn what actually goes on inside the high-security prison walls of Colombia, you should definitely add James Monaghan’s inspiring, exciting, and perceptively-written Colombia Jail Journal book to the Latin American section of your bookshelf.