Believers Behind Bars

Sharing the Word of God in Colombia’s most dangerous prison

September 10, 2019

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    La Modelo Prison in Bogotá, Colombia is one of the most violent places in the country, often referred to as a war zone.

    Known as a war zone, La Modela Prison in Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the country.

    The prison has approximately 11,000 inmates, many of them members of the left-wing communist guerilla forces and right-wing paramilitaries. The groups mix like oil and water with bloody battles happening regularly. Guards are unarmed while inmates have easy access to weapons—guns, knives, even grenades. In 2016, the dismembered bodies of at least 100 missing inmates and visitors were found in the sewer system.

    The prison is divided into courtyards, each like a city of its own. The courtyards have their own leadership, and they charge the residents “taxes” for their occupancy. 

    Inmates’ food is served in large bins. Overcrowding is a major problem at the prison. Locals say that the capacity is 2,000 inmates, but currently it is home to 11,000.

    The first courtyard is home to some of the prison’s most violent offenders.

    It’s also home to a Project Philip Bible study.

    “Our group meetings begin with prayer,” says Pastor Luiz, the Philip in charge of the study. “Most of the prayers are confessional, voicing regrets and sorrow for past offenses.”

    More than 280 prisoners live in the courtyard, and around 40 are now studying God’s Word through Project Philip.

    One of students is Leonel, 31.

    “I was part of the right-wing militia, Autodefenses Unidads de Colombia. I was paramilitary,” he says. “I am here for extortion, kidnapping, and murder.”

    Paramilitary groups act in direct opposition to the left-wing guerilla forces and their civilian allies. These groups control a significant portion of the illegal drug trade in Colombia. They are widely recognized as terrorist groups, and while they serve to protect the economic, social and political interests of the right-wing parties, they have been responsible for the majority of the human rights violations during the Colombian Armed Conflict.

    Leonel was involved in paramilitary groups for years, trying to escape at times but feeling pressured into returning. “It’s extremely hard to get out and not be killed,” he says. “I didn’t know what else to do besides be a rebel.”

    He pauses, the shame of his past returning. “I thought about God, but never did anything,” he says.

    After years of attempts, Leonel was finally able to leave the paramilitary, but the lifestyle continued to haunt him. One day, he and his pregnant wife were attacked at their home. Leonel fled, running desperately for his life.


    I hid in a tiny wooden house. I would’ve died if they had shot into the doors. But God saved my life.

    Leonel pauses, lifting his shirt to count the scars. For him and all of the prisoners, his bullet-scarred body is a testimony of the Lord’s power.

    He survived nine gunshot wounds, and his wife escaped unharmed. While in the hospital, his mother and wife, both Christians, prayed constantly for his recovery. But the nightmare was not over. As his mother was praying, the gunmen entered the hospital. Word of Leonel’s survival had echoed back to the group, and they found him to finish the job. The guard at his door was corrupt, and Leonel knew he would be killed. But God had other plans.

    “When my mother was praying and the rebels were coming, the security officer’s shift changed,” he says. “The corrupt guard left, and the new officer would not let them in. A miracle!”

    After recovery, Leonel was incarcerated for his crimes. He prayed asking God for help to change his life. He accepted Christ as his savior but had no idea how to develop his relationship or how to serve God. He met Pastor Luiz and joined the Project Philip Bible study group. He now reads his Bible every day, knowing that true strength comes from God.

    “When I feel oppressed, I pray. I am strong in my faith because I am in the Word of the Lord daily,” he says. “This Bible is a blessing from the Lord. Thank you!”

    Stories like Leonel’s are not uncommon inside La Modelo Prison. In one of the darkest, most violent places in Colombia, prisoners are finding love, forgiveness and grace through the transformative Word of God.

    Across the world, prisoners are learning the Gospel through Bible League International Prison Bibles and Project Philip Bible studies. These Bibles feature weekly lessons focusing on issues specific to those incarcerated. Your support of Bible League provides these men and women with the life-changing message of God’s grace.

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