Note to the reader: Names in this blog entry have been changed to respect identities. The rest is an accurate account of my experience.
No joke, folks! Our first full day here in Ecuador was spent behind the walls of Quito’s maximum security prison. Granted, we had planned on visiting some exotic locales on this trip: Angel Falls, Tikal, Machu Picchu . . . , but who would have thought the inside of a South American jail cell would appear on the itinerary? Before you all go jumping to your own conclusions (which I’m sure you already have), let me explain how this all came to pass.
It all started one night back in Cartagena, Colombia. Eric and I were having drinks with a couple of English guys, Martin and John, in a swanky bar with a marvelous nautical theme. The atmosphere of the bar was reminiscent of a curiosity shop–filled with miniature model sailing ships, antique sea diver helmets, tables constructed from discarded ship propellers, and even a submarine door that led to the bathroom. The ambiance was straight out of Moby Dick; we may as well have been sitting down with Ishmael and Quee-queg.
It was our first night on the vast continent of South America and we were getting the low-down from these two English chaps who had traveled overland from La Paz, Bolivia. Particles of crushed mint swirled around the melting ice cubes of our dying mojitos as Martin told us in a hushed tone about “the maddest place you could visit in South America.” His eyes lit up when he mentioned it, reflecting the gaslight lanterns that hung throughout the bar, as he began to talk about this certain place, “a place you will never see as a highlight in a Lonely Planet guidebook.”
The place Martin was referring to, as you may have already guessed, was an Ecuadorian maximum security prison located in the country’s capital, Quito. He went on to explain that there was an Englishman you could visit there who was serving a 12-year sentence for his role in an international drug smuggling ring. “His name is Simon Teller,” Martin went on to explain, “He’s a good bloke; he just happened to get caught up in some real mischief.”
After hearing further details about Simon Teller, and having a vivid picture painted for us of Quito’s prison, we were totally sold on the idea. “Everybody goes to see Machu Picchu,” John chimed in, “but how many people get to see a place as mad as Quito jail?” Good point, we concurred.
Eric and I arrived in Quito last Friday night and the first thing on our itinerary for Saturday was a visit to Quito’s, now legendary, prison: Penal Garcia Moreno. After a 15 minute cab ride, we arrived in front of the imposing chalk-white facade of our intended destination. We carried with us a plastic sack containing some gifts consisting of toilet paper, Marlborough cigarettes and a few chocolate bars.
“Simon Teller,” I said to the guard at the front gate. He replied with a question in Spanish that neither I nor Eric could make out. We shrugged and simply repeated the name again, “Simon Teller.” He eventually allowed us to pass through the black steel gate where we were confronted by two more guards whose duty it was to inspect all items and visitors that entered the prison. The guards went to work on our gifts, tearing open the rolls of toilet paper as well as the chocolate bars. They then unwrapped the two sealed packs of cigarettes, pulling several individual cigarettes out and sniffing them. They also had a large Labrador present who was panting menacingly at the end of a short leash.
After inspecting our gifts, they went on to search our persons. It was at this point that we were told we could not bring in our cameras, belts, pens or lighters. We ended up having to entrust these items to a woman who ran a restaurant across the street from the prison. We then returned to the prison gate and again underwent the same process. After a thorough pat-down, we received a number of stamps up our arms, symbolizing that we were visitors and that we had completed the extensive search process. The stamps looked like they belonged in our passports and appeared as almost a sleeve of tattoos–a fitting accoutrement for visiting a prison.
After leaving our passports with a final guard, we were allowed entrance into Quito’s big house. I’ll admit that this was the first time I had ever visited a prison, and I envisioned that it would be similar to what you would see in a movie or on television–a guarded room with a glass wall separating the prisoner from the visitor, with a telephone on each side. Upon entering the prison we found out this was not the case at all. We were not directed to any special room, or even to the cell of the prisoner we intended to visit. Instead we were simply let loose among the general prison population, all of whom were free to roam about the prison grounds at will, and only had to be locked in their cells between the hours of 10:00 pm and 6:00 am.
The environment inside the cell block was unbelievable. We had no idea where to go or what to do. A couple of Ecuadorian prisoners approached us begging for change. “Simon Teller,” I said to them. Just then, a man who had his back to us turned around and said, “That’s me.” He was an average looking man, 31 years old, 5’8, and weighing maybe 150 pounds. He was dressed in a long-sleeved, button-up polo shirt and a pair of corduroys. Complete with short, sandy-blond hair, he gave all appearances of being the typical guy-next-door. “We’ve come to pay you a visit,” I said. “Great,” he replied with a smile, “Welcome to Quito jail.”
After introducing ourselves he gave us a quick tour of the prison. We were surprised to see not only pool tables, but even some restaurants that were run by prisoners. Simon proved to be a very polite host, offering us some coffee as we all sat down around a small table in the prison’s courtyard.
After some getting-to-know-you chit-chat, we found out quite a bit about Mr. Teller and the Quito prison that is now his home. Although he would never refer to himself as such, he is accused of being the “mastermind” behind an international drug ring that would smuggle cocaine by impregnating it into material used for making tents. The material would be shipped out of South America to special labs throughout the U.K. and Europe, where the cocaine would be extracted and eventually sold. According to the case against him, the operation was going very smoothly until one of Mr. Teller´s Colombian partners was busted in Cali and started “singing like a bird.” Soon one of the labs in Scotland was busted and the story was splashed all over the BBC. Simon became a wanted man and was forced to pay the Turkish mafia to help smuggle him out of England with a false passport.
After a short exile in the south of France, Simon headed to Quito to “make another deal.” Unfortunately, Interpol was already on to him. The night he arrived in Quito he was apparently spotted in the airport and followed. His girlfriend from England had also flown into Quito on the same day to meet him. Later that night, as they were relaxing in their hotel room, the door was kicked in and they found themselves surrounded by the Ecuadorian swat team. “That’s when I knew,” Simon went on, “the game was up.”
Sadly, after having only been in South America for a few hours, his girlfriend (who had never played a real role in the smuggling) was also arrested and ended up doing 7 months in Quito’s women’s prison. Simon got 12 years and still faces being extradited back to England where he could get life.
That was 2 years ago. Since that time, Simon has set himself up quite nicely in the Quito prison. After chatting in the courtyard, he showed us his cell which he had purchased for $2,500. The inside of the cell was nicer than a lot of studio apartments I’ve seen. He had the floors tiled, the walls painted, a flat screen TV with a DVD player put in, and he even had the back of his cell door painted with a huge English flag. He also owned half of another cell which he rented out.
While we were hanging out in his cell, Simon pulled out two tiny bags of cocaine that he had hidden at the bottom of a jar of pills. Always playing the part of the polite host, he offered us some. We very politely declined. The irony of the situation was obvious: here we were inside a South American jail cell with an international drug kingpin who was offering us cocaine . When we inquired how drugs could be so prevalent inside the jail, Simon admitted that it was the prison guards who were responsible. He told us that they provide everything from cell phones to handguns. Simon then mentioned that he also had a .38 that was “strictly for protection, of course.” He further went on to explain that things get dangerous inside the prison whenever a strike occurs; therefore a handgun can help provide some much-needed protection.
As we sat chatting inside his cell we heard a knock on the door. It turned out to be a fellow prisoner from Serbia. He was with a tall, attractive, Ecuadorian prostitute and was hoping Peter would rent out his cell for ten minutes or so. After agreeing to a price of $5, we all left the cell, providing some alone time for the Serbian and his prostitute. As soon as the Serbian was finished, another prisoner from Belarus approached Simon and also asked to rent out his cell for a quickie with the same prostitute. This all provided for a very interesting day.
By the time we heard the five o’clock bell ring, signaling the end of visiting hours, Eric and I were quivering with excited energy. Simon, always the gentleman, escorted us back through the cell block to the door from which we had entered. He thanked us for the visit, and we in turn thanked him for being such a gracious host. After making sure our elaborate arm stamps were still visible, we exited the prison and retrieved our passports.
The sun was still shining brightly above the city as we walked along in silence. We were both still very wired from the strange rush we had gotten from the prison experience (not to mention the cocaine, ha ha). In many ways we felt exactly how you might think we would feel; that is to say, as if we had just been released from an Ecuadorian prison.
We spent the next few days exploring Quito. The old town of Quito is an incredibly beautiful place full of restored colonial buildings and maze-like narrow streets. I have to say it is more beautiful than Bogota. Quito’s location alone is stunning. The city is spread across a valley of the Andes that is surrounded by looming mountains and volcanoes.
On our second day here, we went up to visit the statue of the Virgen de Quito. It is located on top of a large hill on the south side of old town. The statue is a major landmark and is kind of like Ecuador’s version of the Statue of Liberty. The view from the hilltop was spectacular and we were even able to climb up inside the virgin for an admission fee of $1.
All around, Quito has been a true pleasure. Tonight we will be taking a night bus to Cuenca, about 11 hours south of here. We plan to spend a few days there before heading to Peru.
Having arrived in Quito, by the way, we finally crossed the equator. The second half of our trip will officially take place inside the southern hemisphere. Ecuador is certainly a country I would like to see a lot more of. I’m sure there are plenty more adventures to be had here, besides the one we already experienced from behind the walls of the prison.
In closing, I respectfully ask you, dear reader, to resist any impulse you might have to shoot off a didactic email referring to us as reckless. Risk is an essential aspect of adventure.