An Irish mother-of-two has been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in Ecuador for possession of cocaine. ‘Angela’, 29, from Donegal was arrested at Quito airport last year after customs officers discovered 2.5kg of the drug in the lining of her bag.
She was about to board a flight to London. She claims she was set up by a drugs dealer, but a court in Ecuador has rejected this. Ireland's consul general has visited the freelance journalist in Quito’s women’s prison, the Carcel de Mujeres. Charles Richard Lacy said she was in good health, but there are concerns for her long-term well-being as she has only one kidney.
Angela went to Ecuador in February 2003 on a ten-day trip to assist a Nigerian friend get a visa. She had met the man in Africa where she ran a home for orphans and abused children, and they attended the same church in London. Angela says she left a new suitcase at her friend’s flat the day before her flight to London. After Angela’s arrest at the airport, the Nigerian has disappeared. Lacy believes the Donegal woman was naive. ‘We are pretty sure she was set up,’ the consul said. ‘I attended her trial, and it seemed fairly conducted. She was not able to offer sufficient evidence that this (Nigerian) man existed. ‘As such, there are currently no grounds for appeal. These drug dealers know how to protect themselves and are very clever and unscrupulous.’
Ecuador’s tough anti-drugs legislation has a philosophy of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, and Angela had to wait over 16 months for her case to go to trial. Judges have been fined in the past for letting drug traffickers walk free, while one judge had an application for a US visa refused after making what American authorities thought were inappropriate decisions.
The South American country is teeming with drug traffickers on the look-out out for travellers who can be bribed or tricked. Those ‘mules’ caught in possession of drugs have no legal defence and face mandatory minimum sentences. About 80 per cent of the 30 western women in Quito’s prison are doing time for drugs offences, with only Angela and an American prisoner continuing to protest their innocence.
Angela claims she has been treated badly in the prison. After her arrest, the Irish woman says she was held for four days in a cell with four men. It was three weeks before she able to alert her husband and her family in Donegal to her plight – and only then by paying a doctor $50 for the use of a mobile phone.
‘I tried to get a guard charged for attempted rape, but then he threatened to have me charged for assault after I slapped him,’ she said. A lawyer to whom her family paid $19,000 died last Christmas, and Angela said she had no translator or lawyer at her trial. She was represented by a public defender, who will not be paid until she is released.
Conditions in Ecuadorian prisons fall well below international standards. Inside the Carcel de Mujeres the atmosphere is closer to that of an over-crowded slum than what most westerners would regard as a prison. Inmates are free to wander about its crowded corridors. There are many small children who live inside with their incarcerated mothers, who must pay $15 a month for cells. Drugs are easily available and violence is not uncommon.
‘Foreigners are obvious targets because they are thought to have money,’ said Angela. ‘It helps if you keep the right people on your side.’
Last April, there were co-ordinated riots in Quito’s prisons in protest at conditions. Hundreds of hostages were taken, including TV news journalists.
‘The ringleaders were banging on the doors making sure everybody came downstairs from their cells,’ said Angela. ‘The place was chaotic for days – like a commune gone wild.’
The Donegal mother says her strong religious belief will see her through the remainder of the prison sentence.
‘God has given me strength, he will be my judge,’ she said. ‘I cope with the help of God, my family and my friends. I try to stay hopeful and keep a good attitude. I have only one kidney and it is not very good. The medical attention here is poor. I miss my family so much and the atmosphere in this place is frightening. There is fighting and evil, and always a lot of noise.’
Angela was living in London at the time of her arrest, and her pastor has been assisting her, as has the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas. A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Irish government was aware of the case and providing consular assistance.
The Sunday Times (Irish edition) 2004