Seppuku spinning inside La Modelo prison at the Bogotrax 2010 festival
Seppuku spinning inside La Modelo prison at the Bogotrax 2010 festival
Yohanna Guerrero

I DJed for the Inmates at Colombia’s Most Notorious Prison

As told to Joel “DJ Deadly Buda” Bevacqua.

February 2010, La Modelo Prison, Bogotá, Colombia
– The guard dogs ripped apart my record bag, scattering my vinyl records all over the floor as they barked like demons. The blood left my face as guards stepped forward to detain me. They already had my passport, mug shots, fingerprints, and now they were going to have my life.

The dogs had smelled something in my record bag, and my hosts frantically tried to explain how it all must be a mistake to the prison authorities. I had come to party in Colombia, but like the rest of La Modelo’s inmates, I was apparently about to stay there for 30 to 40 years, if I ever left alive. 

Pleading my case to the summoned authorities were the organizers of Bogotrax, an independent, 10-day, do-it-yourself, free electronic music and cultural festival held in Bogotá, Colombia, and its surrounding counties. The festival’s various parties and workshops would draw anywhere from one to 8,000 people and were largely responsible for helping spark Colombia’s love of hardcore techno.

A hallway inside La Modelo Prison
A hallway inside La Modelo Prison
Yohanna Guerrero

These accomplishments were far from my mind, however, as the Bogotrax organizers pleaded with the guards while their slobbering dogs ripped my records from their sleeves and pushed them all over the concrete floor.

I had been randomly chosen to play in the prison to help entertain the inmates during the festival. Only five DJs out of almost 150 invited to play at Bogotrax are even informed of the prison event. The night before I was warned to clean out all my possessions of any possible drugs or contraband. However, the dogs are so keen that residue or even secondhand pot smoke could have set them off.

Finally, after finding nothing, and at the insistence of some lawyers, I was thankfully allowed to enter the prison as a guest, and not another one of its 11,000-plus inmates.

The crowd of inmates gathered in the yard
The crowd of inmates gathered in the yard
Yohanna Guerrero

The smell of horrible, putrid death increased the further you got into La Modelo. It is a smell I will never forget. Initially, I supposed it was from the extreme overcrowding in the facility. Every type of prisoner you could imagine is held there: Political prisoners, left-wing rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, murderers, rapists, smugglers, kidnappers, robbers and basically any and every type of criminal you would find in a maximum security prison are packed in like sardines.

Years later, though, I would find out the smell was actually from over 100 mutilated bodies rotting in the sewer underneath the facility. Some of these victims weren’t even prisoners but visitors and various other casualties of Colombia’s political and drug war. In fact, La Modelo also is famous for the political segregation of some of its prison population. The left-wing rebels occupy the north side of the prison and right-wing paramilitaries are on the south side. Both historically have had easy access to automatic weapons and even grenades. In 2000, 25 people were killed in just one prison fight.

Seppuku preparing to play inside La Modelo
Seppuku preparing to play inside La Modelo
Yohanna Guerrero

I guess it was good I didn’t know these things at the time, as I might have been too terrified to do the event. As it was, I felt happy and scared while I was there. Happy because my heart told me I was doing something positive for the people inside, and scared because it’s a super hardcore prison. While Bogotrax was overall a positive thing for Bogotá, bringing music, culture and art, the fact remained that I was inside a maximum-security Colombian prison.

We set up turntables and DJ equipment on a second-story balcony overlooking one of the 10 yards in La Modelo. Each yard holds about 1,000 prisoners, and there were only two unarmed guards patrolling ours. Trying to read the crowd, I started out my set playing dubstep and grime and then went into some noise and breakcore, then some harder drum ’n’ bass flowing into hardcore techno. After peaking with that, I then brought the crowd back down with hip-hop and some scratching.

It seemed the inmates vibed with the hardcore techno the most, because of the anger and anguish they must have felt inside such a horrible place. They also really liked the hip-hop, since it probably sparked some good memories from when they were younger. I had a few inmates bust out some breakdancing and electric boogaloo moves to some beats, which everyone in the yard really enjoyed. It was amazing to see the crowd react to the music and escape into somewhere else, if only for an afternoon.

I ended up walking down to the yard with all the inmates. You cannot show them any fear at all. They all wanted to trade stuff and wanted my clothes and worn-out shoes. That seemed really odd to me as I had never considered those things so valuable.

I ended up giving them some Seppuku stickers and some records and CDs, hoping they could get some enjoyment from them after the day was done. This might sound far-fetched initially, but La Modelo had several “comforts” of the outside world, so I knew they could play the CDs. The facility even had several restaurants, one of which was run by the FARC [Colombia's largest rebel militia]; its members were allowed to eat there for free.

Prisoners inside Bogotá, Colombia's La Modelo prison, holding the poster for that year's event, Bogotrax 2010
Prisoners inside Bogotá, Colombia's La Modelo prison, holding the poster for that year's event, Bogotrax 2010
Photos by Yohanna Guerrero

After the prison rave, I continued to attend Bogotrax until its end that year. In stark contrast to the maximum-security prison, the rest of the festival was a wonderland of DIY rave sound systems, educational workshops, free food and graffiti art spilling out into even Bogotá's rougher neighborhoods.

After that day, I would never take my life and what I had for granted. It became real apparent to me that one instance of bad luck or one understandable bad decision could have devastating consequences.

Unfortunately, Bogotrax would last as a yearly event only until 2013. A victim of its own success, eventually its parties became too big, and a number of riots and incidents transpired when partiers couldn’t get into some of the events.

I wish more people could have seen the prison rave because maybe they would have realized how temporary and fleeting good times can be — and how much they can mean to people who have lost almost everything.

Seppuku is a dubstep, grime, experimental and hardcore techno DJ and producer from Santa Barbara. You can catch up with him on his Facebook page. He will be spinning at his birthday bash at Golden China Restaurant in Ventura on Saturday, Feb. 25, and again at Euphoria Hookah Lounge in Santa Barbara on Monday, Feb. 27.

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