Tantrums, tiaras in Bogota prison

BOGOTA: Claudia Moncada adjusted her yellow dress one last time to show off her curves. In a few minutes she was to take part

in a beauty contest with a

difference: the pretender to the crown have been convicted

of murder, robbery and drug trafficking.

For the past 15 years every September, Colombian prison authorities let their hair down, and let female inmates let theirs down too. To mark the celebration of the Holy Virgin in this heavily Roman Catholic country, inmates hold concerts and — in a beauty obsessed country — pageants.

“In Colombia there are beauty contests everywhere, it’’s part of our culture,” said Teresa Moya, the director of Colombia’’s prisons, explaining the decision to hold the pageant.

For inmates it is certainly a welcome respite from the difficulties of day-to-day life behind bars.

“It is an opportunity to forget all the pain and sadness of the prison. Today the food is better, the guards are nice, and all the girls are happy,” said 30-year-old Moncada, who has spent two years in prison but refuses to reveal what her crime was.

“Sorry darling, I haven’’t got any foundation for your

legs!” shouted someone in one of the two bustling salons in the Buen Pastor prison, Bogota, where Moncada has two more years to serve.

The outburst came from Alfonso Llano, a professional hairdresser better known as “Pocho”, who said he helped out because the contestants are “decent and generous girls, who once made a mistake.

“I treat them as I would any model. They show me lots of

affection and I treat them as

I would any model,” he said with emotion.

Claudia Moncada was nervous. She was representing Section Four of the prison, one of only 16 prisoners out of 1,493 chosen to compete by their peers. The other inmates were dressed in elegant white gowns lent to them by designers, and they formed a cortege as the contestants were escorted to a podium in the prison yard.

When Claudia climbed the stairs, her comrades drowned her in confetti made from old magazines, shouting words of encouragement.