The content originally appeared on: Latin America News – Aljazeera

The new director of one of Colombia’s biggest prisons has been shot dead, the authorities said, after receiving threats against him and his family last week, prompting the government to order a massive operation in the capital to hunt down the assailants.

Elmer Fernandez’s killing in Bogota on Thursday comes after the government declared a “prison emergency” in February amid a surge in cases of prison riots, homicides, attacks and threats against prison personnel in several jails across the country.

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The former police colonel, and current director of Bogota’s La Modelo prison was returning home from work when a motorcycle approached his vehicle and gunmen opened fire. He was killed with a single shot to the head as he sat in the passenger seat.

Justice Minister Nestor Osuna condemned the killing and said a major police operation was under way to catch the assailants.

“I want to express all my solidarity and that of the government and the entire nation to the family of Colonel Fernandez,” he said.

Fernandez, who started running the facility on April 4, had no security escort or an armoured car.

He had received several written death threats after he began to implement new government policies to clean up the jail and crack down on criminal activity, including unannounced searches of inmates and their cells.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro said Fernandez was “vilely murdered”, in a post on X.

Relatives of Elmer Fernandez mourn after the director of La Modelo prison was shot dead in Bogota [Andrea Ariza/AFP]

“Tell the murderers that they are not going to intimidate us and that we will move forward despite their attacks and insolence,” he said after an emergency security meeting.

General William Salamanca, the head of Colombia’s national police, ordered a lockdown in Bogota to find the suspects.

“To the murderers, I want to say that you will not scare us, and we will go forward in spite of your attacks,” he told reporters.

Some of Colombia’s most notorious criminals are held at La Modelo. In 2020, at least 23 people were killed in the facility after a riot during which inmates were “shot to death intentionally”.

In 2022, 49 people were killed and dozens were injured in a fire during an apparent riot in a prison in the southwestern Colombian city of Tulua.

The authorities say organised gangs operate from inside the country’s overcrowded penitentiaries, smuggling drugs and running extortion rackets.

Jorge Restrepo, a political analyst and professor at Javeriana University in Bogota, told Al Jazeera that criminal gangs are well connected across the country and their power is far reaching.

“It’s most likely it was carried out by organised groups,” he said of Fernandez’s murder.

Fernandez was leading an operation to separate gang members.

Colombia’s prison authority warned that other officials are at risk. Since the beginning of the year, five guards have been killed and six have survived attempts on their lives.

At least 550 officials have received death threats in the past two years, according to the government.

Daniel Gutierrez, director of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute, admitted that Fernandez was not provided an armoured vehicle “because we do not have the capacity”, adding that “in fact, no director has such protection”.



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