Photographers' Blog

The prettiest in prison

By Jose Miguel Gomez
September 28, 2012

By Jose Miguel Gomez

I thought this year’s prison beauty pageant would be the same as in the past, a story of prisoners enjoying a day different from the rest that coincides with the Our Lady of Mercy holiday.

Colombia is a country of beauty queens and pageants. Each region has its annual fiestas that are centered around a beauty pageant. Dozens of them are chosen throughout the year to culminate in the selection of the single most beautiful Miss Colombia in Cartagena. There are pageants to elect a miss coffee, a miss honey, and the woman with the nicest buttocks, in this country that loves to brag about the beauty of its women. Surprisingly, there is even one to elect the best dressed donkey, and the ugliest man.

This day in El Buen Pastor Prison didn’t seem to be an exception. They have been electing their beauty queen here for the past decade. Their pageant is just like the Miss Universe one; they elect their queen and give her a crown, which is passed on the following year to the next winner.

I entered the room where stylists groomed and made up the contestants. There were seven contestants in all, one representing each of the prison’s seven sectors. Meanwhile the hundreds of prisoners in the audience were enjoying a party with last year’s queen, singing and dancing as they awaited the start of the pageant.

One contestant in particular seemed especially attractive, but I felt like she shied away from me after seeing the camera. I smiled and greeted her, but she ignored me after saying, “I don’t want photos.” The truth is it really didn’t bother me, but I couldn’t help thinking how this beautiful woman, only about 33 or 35 years old, ended up in there. The other girls were very nice and enjoyed the show. I imagined that they all felt pretty for a day, and could forget for a day their harsh reality and the fact that they were living imprisoned without their children or their families.

When they were ready to start the pageant the girls looked nervous, and some appeared envious of others who had more elegant dresses. The prison guards approached curiously to praise some for being prettier than others. I moved closer to the one who ignored me earlier and saw she had a confident look, and seemed a woman of strong character. I asked her permission to take her picture, and this time she said yes. She told me her name, Emma Urdinola, and I wondered if she could be a relative of the drug trafficker Ivan Urdinola, from the infamous Cali Cartel who was arrested in the 1990s.

The show began and the first to parade was Emma in typical dress, looking radiant, with the others walking behind her. The emotion on stage could be felt as the girls appeared elegant, and the screams from the audience were deafening.

They went on to the next segment of fantasy costumes where they better displayed their bodies. There were several beautiful ones, but Emma stood out dressed as an Egyptian. She paraded, and with that costume she became even more the favorite. She smiled for my camera and even posed with an air of charm.

Popular singer Johnny Rivera shook the event as he sang heart-wrenching songs whose lyrics told stories about women in jail, and we all felt the tears shed by the girls.

In the final evening gown segment the girls looked pretty, and Emma in a blue dress became the obvious winner. When she received the crown her tears fell onto the stage, and she paraded one final time, victoriously.

One of the jury members told me that Emma was the daughter of Ivan Urdinola, who had died in uncertain circumstances in jail. Emma herself had been sentenced to 35 years for homicide. As I left the stage I saw tattooed on her back the image of her father. Her long hair covered the tattoo, blocking it from my camera. I did decide to return next year for when she hands her crown to the next beauty queen.

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