South America Nightmare

Twenty-seven-year-old Irishwoman ‘Angela’ was arrested in February 2003 after drugs were found sewn into her bag at Quito airport in Ecuador. Despite overwhelming evidence that she was set up, she was sentenced to the full eight-year term…

‘When I was arrested, I was confused and scared, not knowing what was happening. It was horrible. When the customs officers stuck the knife in my bag and pulled it out covered in powder, my mind raced – 100 thoughts flying through my head. But I honestly thought I would be let go, that they would realise they had made a mistake. I fainted. It flashed through my mind that I would die here and my family would be alone.

‘They found several kilograms of cocaine sewn into my bag – the bag that my supposed “friend” Tony had in his flat the day before I was due to return home to my family in London. I didn’t speak Spanish and there was no interpreter. When waiting in custody for over five weeks, I thought my life was over. All I could do was get on my knees and pray. I had no contact with my family for two weeks. I just wanted to see my husband, mammy, and children to get strength from them. I always believed I would be let go the next day, and then the next. It was weeks before I paid a doctor to use her mobile phone so I could explain to my family why I hadn’t come home.

‘I was first held in an open, mixed cell before appearing in court. One of the guards there assaulted me but when I threatened to bring charges he just said he would just say that I’d attacked him first. At first, I didn’t think Tony, whom I'd gone to South America to help with his visa, could be involved. I had known him a long time. We went to the same church in London and he'd worked in an orphanage I’d set up in Africa. I thought he was my best friend. Now I know he has lied to me for most of my life. It hurts that I loved Tony like a brother, and trusted him. I am now scared to believe in people. Nobody has seen or heard from him since the day I was arrested.

‘My first lawyer took over £10,000 from my family but did nothing to help me. The next one did little either and I’m still hoping to find someone whom I can trust. It’s difficult as there is so much corruption and good lawyers don’t want to get involved in case they are suspected of being involved in illegal drug trafficking themselves. Because of the United States’ war against drugs the officials here fear the repercussions of investigating anyone’s innocence.

‘It’s terrible to be convicted for something I would never do but it’s made even more surreal when even the people that sent me here don't think I did it. Even the guy that arrested me said he didn’t think I was guilty and rings me regularly to see how I am coping. I have met many people who offer me support and have tried to help me but I’m still here. I know that my case has been discussed in the Irish parliament and even Oprah Winfrey wanted to interview me but the authorities wouldn’t give them permission to film inside.

‘I have learned God never allows us to be in a difficult situation without giving us the strength to deal with it. I also believe that he wants me here to learn and to know that his love is everywhere. I have gained patience, become wiser and grown up a lot. When I look around me I am worried what my children will grow up to be. But I also look at the world in a beautiful way. I realise that trees, flowers, rain, animals and the moon at night are all blessings from God. Not seeing these things makes me wonder how people can want to destroy a world that was created so beautiful. I just want to walk in the rain again and see the hustle in the mornings as people go to work. That world is now like another country, which I miss very much. I live here in prison, and the world outside doesn’t seem to care or notice.

‘I write a lot. I have written a book about my experiences but I’m struggling to get it published. I managed to get hold of an old computer that recently has been my best friend. Living here is frightening. People are always asking for money, clothes, and food. I also need to get medicine as I only have one kidney. Sometimes I give my food to some of the women who have their children living with them inside the prison and are penniless. The drug users also cause a lot of hassle and are always looking to steal from you.

‘To survive you have to get on with everyone and it helps to share what you have to avoid being picked on. As a Westerner, you have to be especially strong as other prisoners assume you have money. If you are seen as weak they will take advantage. Thankfully, God protects me. I’ve been nearly hurt many times, but his angels are always with me. The dreams I have and believe will come true are to hold my family members in my arms again, sit in a bubble bath or by a warm fire, walk in the rain, smell the flowers and see the trees blowing in the wind. I dream a lot of sitting and talking with my family, seeing the twinkle of Christmas lights. My mother and husband were very upset last year because they thought I’d be home for Christmas and they both felt useless that they couldn’t help me. My kids said all they wanted was for Santa to bring me home.

‘Sometimes I struggle to keep my belief and question why I am here – but my faith is the only thing that keeps me strong and fighting for my rights. My family has helped me with love and comfort. They send money so that I can buy myself food and gas to cook with. The food here tastes foul and even if you’re hungry it’s not worth eating as it invariably makes you sick. I also need cash so I can pay for a cramped shared cell. So, I do work such as cooking and decorating the cells of other inmates as nothing here is provided by the state except the four walls keeping us in.

‘My mammy is very sick and there are many things I want to tell her to her face. I want to get home to spend some time with her while it’s still possible. I am very close to my brother and am desperate for him to come and see me. It seems such a long time since I saw any of them. My husband tries to ring me every night. We cry sometimes, but we are more in love now since being apart. He has changed so much since I have been here and is now a better father, husband, and friend. He says beautiful things and makes me laugh. He told me that not only am I in prison, but without me by his side, he is too.

‘It took 16 months to sentence me although the Ecuadorian constitution says we can walk free if it doesn't happen within a year. But I’m still here. The authorities have told us that they will be deporting the foreigners to their home countries but they have been saying this for over six months and nothing ever happens. I just hope they will do it soon, as I don’t think I could last another Christmas here. But everything is backwards here – they make a decision one week and do the opposite the next. Since the president was recently deposed the uncertainty is even greater. But two years and five months later, I am still here hoping to leave all this pain in the past. The waiting is the worst part.

‘For the last three weeks, all the prisoners have been on strike to protest against the government failing to honour its promises. No food. No visitors. Even the guards don’t come in and we are left to fend for ourselves inside. It’s ironic that we are both in prison and yet in a place that lives outside the law. While there is solidarity between the prisoners, we are forced to go along with the protests.

‘I hope my children will never have pain like this in their lives. I want to go home and leave this place behind me. I have learned a lot here and I thank God sometimes for allowing me to be here because I have grown to be a wiser person. I pray for the laws to change, for a miracle. I am crying now as I write this. I pray that 2005 is going to be my year and that everything works out the way I want it.’

Reveal magazine 2005