Having interviewed Wally Broderick just a few weeks ago for Colombia Calling about the state of Colombia’s prison system, it sparked several memories of the few occasions upon which I had entered, as a visitor, the Garcia Moreno Prison in Quito, Ecuador.
Wind the clock back to 2004 and I was working as a freelance social projects coordinator and expedition leader for a British outfit with my base in Ecuador. One of the warm-up activities to which we would subject our keep of British Gap Year students coming out for some much needed exposure to the world, was to gain access to either of the male or female prisons located in that capital city and show them the horrors within.
The idea behind this was to open their fresh young eyes to the reality of drug smuggling in the hope that they might not stray into this pastime whilst we were responsible for them. So, we would make contact with British or Anglophone inmates and set up a visitation hour.
I’ll admit that entering the Garcia Moreno Prison was never a comfortable outing to lead, so often does one read of hostage-takings, uprisings or even as has been revealed recently in Colombia, dismemberments and disappearances of visitors. I never fully relaxed until we were all out and in a truck heading back into Quito, especially if we led groups weighted with more women whilst in the men’s prison.
On the first visit we were fortunate to contact an elderly Dutch inmate who had been imprisoned for allegedly having drugs inserted into the computer parts he was shipping back from Ecuador to Holland. His story, while well delivered, presumably from having convinced himself of his innocence over time, was less than credible. During the 40 minutes or so he spoke to us about the unpleasantness of life on this inside, a friend entered. Also in his 60s, this stout German admitted that he had managed to avoid becoming a target of the ne’er do wells in the joint by propagating the rumour, effectively so, that he had been a personal bodyguard to Chile’s General Pinochet. I suppose that so nefarious were Pinochet’s actions and so widely known across the continent, this kept people at bay despite the German’s advanced years.
Seeking out Ian from England, we were invited to his cell. Gifts of lewd magazines and cigarettes made, Ian would tell us how he was now a proud Ecuadorian since the lady he had been seeing during conjugal visits had given birth to a little girl. He would never return to the UK he would state. He said that since conjugal visits had been permitted – something relatively recent in 2004 in Ecuadorean prisons I believe – the cases of rape had decreased significantly.
Did Ian show any regret or remorse for his actions of having tried to smuggle cocaine out of Ecuador and to the UK? Not an iota. He was, just as his friend from New York, now as convinced as ever that they knew the system even better and how to beat it once they were out. “I even have smuggling contacts in Greenland,” the New Yorker ventured after giving us class A1 on shifting drugs.
Briefly a father and son smuggling team from northern England appeared. They seemed too out of it for conversation.
Whilst being given the full tour of each wing of the prison, we momentarily passed through an incongruous looking area with fresh paint, hanging baskets with blooming flowers, a sizeable grill in the corner providing decent-looking hamburgers and where each cell appeared to have been fitted with a television.
Peering into once cell I could see that the game was on. I knew at once which one. The FA Cup game Manchester United vs Exeter City. A third round replay after a courageous 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, this was glory tie for the low-ranking Grecians but business as usual for the ridiculously talented United. Having graduated from Exeter University in 2000 the local side occupied and continues to occupy a place of affection in my heart.
“That’s my team!” I expressed excitedly to the prisoner slung along his bunk.
“Ah Manchester United, very good team,” responded the prisoner.
“No the other one.”
“The shit one?” He looked at me suspiciously as one looks at a madman.
Later I was informed that this area of the prison had been specifically designed by and for high-ranking actors in Ecuador’s drugs trade. If only I knew a little more about the individual with whom I had shared but a few words.
I had been humbled by a man deprived of his liberty.
Exeter City went on to lose 2-0 at home
I have since read that the prison was closed in 2015 and you can now take a 30 minute tour of the buildings. Certainly this would be chilling, but nothing on the experience we shared with the groups when its inhabitants lived there.