“Costa Rica is a paradise, a virtual Garden of Eden” or so the tourist brochures lead us to believe. Turn the pages of any guide book and, doubtless, you will read glowing reports about this “peaceful” country, with its stable government, its lack of an army, its protected national parks, its teeming wildlife, its breathtaking landscapes, its farsighted conservation policies, its unique University for Peace, its perfect climate, its pristine beaches and its strict zoning laws to prevent overdevelopment.
The list is varied and endless. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and this carefully contrived image at once begins to disintegrate. For the truth is Costa Rica is a country ruled by laws that are rarely enforced. The current government of Laura Chinchilla lacks popularity and several prominent Ministers have resigned over the past few few years amid growing corruption scandals. There is open dissension among the Board of Directors at the University for Peace. The endangered jaguar, although internationally protected, is being poached to extinction in one of its last “safe” habitats, the Corcovado National Park. Large numbers of foreign paedophiles visit Costa Rica to seek out young, vulnerable children for sex. An even larger number of cheap immigrant labour, mainly from neighbouring Nicaragua, has created an atmosphere of fear and resentment both among the Costa Rican workforce and within the population at large. And evidence of laundered drug money is clearly visible in the profusion of condominiums, gated communities and tourist resorts that are mushrooming up all over the country. This list too is varied and endless.
But, despite it all, Costa Rica remains a mecca for young and old alike seeking an unspoiled environment or safe haven under a tropical sun. Exchange students, backpackers, conservation volunteers, bird and wildlife enthusiasts, surfers, adventurers, sex tourists, retirees, senior citizens and international criminals evading justice, all are lured here by the promise of a mythical paradise. Most leave the country after a couple of weeks holiday still convinced by the propaganda. Those that stay a while are inevitably confronted with the truth. Some, disillusioned, pack up and return home. Others, like me, develop a love-hate relationship with this land of numerous frustrations, intriguing contradictions and irresistible temptations.
Here, far from this image of paradise, I have come to see Serena and Charlotte, names more familiar to the society pages of Country Life than to a women’s prison in the tropics. For the penitentiary, “El Buen Pastor” (the Good Shepherd) is where Serena and Charlotte have ended up.
Nestled into the lush foothills of the massive southern mountain range overlooking Costa Rica’s Central Valley this ramshackle fortress, formerly an isolated convent, has obviously fallen on hard times. Not so long ago it was deemed unfit for its current use and condemned for demolition. So further down the road a more modern extension is being built to take its place. But this too is faced with problems. There is a severe shortage of potable water on the new site and so, for the time being, it can only be used as a “protection” unit to house those girls whose lives are considered in danger. This is currently where Serena and Charlotte are being housed after another inmate threatened them with a knife.
These two English girls, one from a middle-class neighbourhood of Leeds and one from a depressed inner-city area of Wolverhampton, are lovers. But it is precisely because of their love for one another that they now find themselves serving a five and a half years prison sentence without the possibility of parole. Both are very young, 22 and 23. Serena, soft-spoken but the more talkative of the two, is the quintessential English rose, voluptuous figure, porcelain complexion, auburn hair and green eyes. Charlotte, the amateur poet, is part Jamaican, more introspective, with dark eyes and an ever-ready smile that radiates warmth.
So how, I wondered, did these two very British girls end up serving time in a Costa Rican jail?
“I was to blame,” Charlotte told me, “I’d had a previous drugs conviction in England. I was caught at Heathrow with 92 kilos of cannabis that I was paid to bring in from Jamaica. I served 18 months of a 3 ½ year sentence, then wore an electronic tag for three months and after that I was on probation.”
So why make the same mistake again, I asked.
“Because Serena and I were in love. We had put a deposit down on a place together. We needed money to buy things for it, furniture and stuff. They offered me $15,000 for one trip to bring in 10 kilos of cocaine from Barbados. It was tempting.”
When Serena found out about this plan she was fuming.
“I called Charlie and threatened to break off our affair. I cried and pleaded with her. I told her she was no longer the girl I’d fallen in love with and I didn’t want to be with her any more. She replied, ‘think about it, it’s easy money, we’d be able to afford nice things for our flat, perhaps even a car.’ But I begged her to think again. I asked her how she could be so stupid, she’d only been out of prison 8 months by then. I told her I just didn’t want her being involved in anything like that ever again.”
So, not wanting to lose Serena, Charlotte relented. She told her “recruiter“, a childhood friend from the notorious Bushbury neighbourhood of Wolverhampton, that she would find someone else to take her place as drug mule.
“I was told I would be paid $1500 for every girl I recruited.” Charlotte began asking around. “Eventually I spoke to a girl I had met in prison and she agreed to do it for me. I was paid $500 to go to Stevenage to meet up with this girl, buy her a passport and then bring her back to Wolverhampton.”
All went well at the start. It was only when Charlotte’s recruit backed out at the last minute that trouble began.
“Charlie kept receiving threatening text messages and voicemails,” Serena said, “I was really scared for her, for us.”
Hoping to escape the threats Charlotte took the train to Leeds where she moved in with Serena. The intimidated pair stayed home, avoided going out, fearful they might be seen. But this hermitic life, cut off from friends and family, couldn’t last indefinitely.
“Eventually we went out and there they were, the two men Charlie owed the $500 to,” Serena continued, “they must have been waiting for us. They came up to her and said, ‘I’m warning you, my guys have killed people for less money than that.’”
Not wanting Serena to be involved, Charlotte took the men aside, begged them to leave her alone.
“I offered to pay them back $100 a week but they wouldn’t listen to me,” Charlotte said. “They told me Serena would have to go instead of my recruit. They said it was either that or we’d have to watch our backs forever. I said I would never let Serena go.”
Seeing no way out, Charlotte reluctantly agreed to go herself.
Back home later that night Serena and Charlotte discussed their options for several hours.
“Finally we said to each other, if it’s got to be done, it’s got to be done,” Serena said. “But I didn’t want Charlie to go alone so we decided we’d both go. And so the next day we got our passports and the men bought us our tickets. They told us we would be flying the following Friday, not to Barbados as we had previously been told, but through Paris, Caracas and then on to San Jose, Costa Rica.”
Unlike most tourists who, on first sight, view Costa Rica as a paradise, the girls’ first impression was distinctly unfavourable.
“We were met at the airport by two guys, Lee and “Dreds”, and taken to a very seedy area of San Jose, to the filthiest motel I’ve ever seen, full of cockroaches.” Serena said.
Fed up by their numerous complaints the two men finally escorted them round the corner to the more salubrious Hotel Europa and offered to change their money for them. “The guys told us one pound is equal to 300 colones. We believed them,” Charlotte explained, “so we gave them 30 quid.”
The next day they were in for their first rude awakening. “We were out walking and we passed a bank,” Serena said, “and went inside. We found out that one pound was worth at least 800 colones. Now that they’d deliberately cheated us we knew we couldn’t trust them. I just wanted to forget the whole thing and go home. But there was no way we could, the guys had kept our suitcases and our passports.”
The girls got restless waiting for their return trip to the UK and asked permission to spend some time by the sea. Lee and “Dreds” took them to the Caribbean port of Limon where they passed a few days on the beach. Unnerved by the many days of waiting, doing little but sunbathing during the day and watching subtitled films on television at night, both had premonitions of a disaster waiting to happen.
“We just knew we were going to get caught,” Serena said, “both of us felt that way. But Charlie kept trying to reassure me, ‘it’ll be OK, it’ll be OK, she said. But, if we do get caught, I’ll take the blame and you can go home.’ But by then I’d realized we had no choice. We were in it together. Besides, there was no point in running away. There was nowhere for us to go. We didn’t speak Spanish so it was hard to talk to anyone.”
A week later they were put on a bus back to San Jose where they were reunited with their suitcases.
“The brother of my “recruiter” friend from Wolverhampton was there at the hotel waiting for us.” Charlotte said, “I recognized him immediately from my last drugs trip to Jamaica. He told me he had drilled the bottoms of our suitcases and put the drugs inside. He assured us everything would be fine. Then Lee and “Dreds” told us to pack because we would be leaving the following day.”
Their return trip, they were told, would take them back to Caracas and then on to Paris where they would disembark before heading on to the UK. “That way,” Serena explained, “they said we could mingle with thousands of football supporters who would be making their way back to England from an international match in France.”
In the morning a taxi picked the girls up from the Hotel Europa and took them to the airport.
“I wasn’t particularly frightened,” Serena said, “but just very sad. I knew something would go wrong. We checked in our luggage without any problem but then it happened. The airport police approached us and started asking questions. Why had we come to Costa Rica, was it for a holiday, where had we been staying while we were here, was it our first visit and how long had we been here? That kind of thing.”
“We answered their questions as best we could,” Charlotte explained, “but Serena was feeling really sick by this time. Anyway they let us go. And we thought that was that. We thought we’d got away with it. We walked into the Departure Lounge, hardly daring to breathe, not wanting to look behind us. We sat down and I said to Serena, ‘We’re going to be OK! We’re really going to be OK!’”
When their flight was called, the girls, much relieved but still somewhat in shock, joined the queue to board the Taca Airlines plane. But just as they were about to enter the plane they felt someone tapping them on the back. They turned around to face a large unsmiling man with greying hair and sweating temples.
“You no fly!” he announced.
“What do you mean? What’s going on?” the girls asked.
“You no fly!” he repeated. “You come with me!”
By that time three Customs officials had joined them and the four men escorted the girls back into the terminal. Inside the office of the airport police Serena and Charlotte were handcuffed. The girls watched as a “Hitler look-alike” picked up their suitcases, opened them, removed the contents and proceeded to rip away the linings.
“We were terrified,” Serena said, “but then we saw there was nothing there. I couldn’t believe it. We were so happy.”
Their sense of relief didn‘t last long, however. The officer reached into his pocket, drew out a screwdriver and drove it hard into the base of each suitcase. They watched as he extracted it covered in a fine white powder. Like an alchemist he poured a small quantity of liquid on it and watched as the powder promptly changed colour confirming to the police and Customs inspectors that the drug contained in both suitcases was cocaine. He warned them, “You’re in BIG trouble. BIG trouble!” At which point the girls started to laugh uncontrollably.
“We couldn’t help it, we just cracked up.” Charlotte said, “It was the way he said it. We were really nervous, I guess, and that sometimes gives you hysterics.”
They remained handcuffed for six hours, even when they went to the bathroom. And then they and their suitcases were taken to the nearest police station in nearby Alajuela. It was there that the cocaine was finally removed, tested and weighed. They were informed the full amount weighed less than 2 kilos. It now dawned on the girls that Lee and “Dreds” had stolen the other 8 kilos to sell for themselves.
“We were sure then,” Serena said, “that they had set us up. They had squealed on us. They let us get caught for less than 2 kilos while they made money selling the rest. And, even if we had made it to the UK, they must have known we would never have been paid the $15,000 we were promised. We were so angry. Charlie whispered to me, ‘I’m so sorry, Serena, but I said it’s OK! And it was OK. I knew what I was doing when I agreed to do this job. We both did, so there was no need for her to apologize.”
A welcome visit that evening from the British Consul raised the girls’ spirits somewhat but her message brought them little cheer.
“She was really kind and sympathetic to us,” Serena told me, “and it felt so good to speak English with someone again. But she warned us we would be going to prison in Costa Rica, possibly for a long, long time, between 8 and 20 years. We were utterly devastated.”
Worse was to come. On their arrival the next day at “El Buen Pastor“, the girls were shown to their “ambito” (living quarters).
“It seemed like the whole prison population was following us,” Serena recalled, “They were all screaming and shouting and I remember thinking, oh my God, they’ve brought us to the zoo!”
So how, I asked them had they fared those first few days.
“It was horrible,” Charlotte told me, “There were no beds for us so we had to sleep on the floor for five weeks, the first two weeks without even a mattress. There were no flushing loos, only a pot and a bucket of water. The pot is for used toilet paper and the bucket of water is for flushing the toilet manually.”
“And we have to pay 150 colones a week (18 pence) to use the toilet and another 150 colones every time we use the shower,” Serena interrupted, “and there’s no running water in the shower, only a bucket of cold water.”
I asked them what contact they’d had with their parents.
“At first I was too upset to call them,” Serena said, “I thought they’d be horrified and angry with me. But when I did finally speak to them they were so relieved to hear from me. They had been so worried. They did ask me a lot of questions, of course, but they said they would support me 100%. I was phoning them reverse charges to begin with until they ended up with a phone bill of nearly two thousand pounds!”
And then there were the stray animals the girls had to get used to. Feral cats, dogs, rats and racoons, covered in mange, riddled with fleas and spreading diseases, roam the grounds day and night, searching for scraps of food.
“The rats are so big,” Serena told me, “that the cats don’t even bother to chase them. And, at night, the two families of racoons run backwards and forwards across the corrugated iron roof.”
“And Serena got bitten by all kinds of insects the first week,” Charlotte explained, “and her leg swelled right up and she had lumps under her arms so she tried to see the doctor.”
“But you need to be dying in here before the prison officers let you see the doctor,” Serena added, “and so I wasn’t seen for four weeks. When the doctor did eventually see me she was disgusted I hadn’t been allowed a visit before. She said I had an infection in my glands, my stomach was completely inflamed and I had an allergy to the insect bites. She put me on antibiotics and anti-inflammatory tablets for three weeks.”
The court case that swiftly followed their arrival in “El Buen Pastor” found them guilty and sentenced them each to 5 years and 4 months.
“I wanted to tell the court it was all my fault, that Serena wasn’t guilty of anything,” Charlotte explained. “I wanted to take the blame myself. But my lawyer warned me if I did that the judge would probably increase Serena’s sentence to 8 years. So she had no choice but to plead guilty too.”
The girls are both convinced that, as foreigners in “El Buen Pastor“, they are being discriminated against. “There are local girls here,” Serena explained, “with more than ten bad behaviour reports to their name and they never get taken to the “toombas” (solitary confinement). But when Charlie had a fight, that none of the officers even witnessed, she was immediately taken to the toomba, even though it was her first report.”
In fact my initial meeting with Charlotte took place while she was in solitary, a separate derelict block surrounded by a high wire fence situated at the far end of the prison grounds. Despite the appalling conditions there and the fact that, for a first offence, she had been sentenced to 18 days, she still managed to smile. I asked her how she came to be there.
“I caught a girl stealing Serena’s trainers,” she explained. “I guess I should have just walked away from it but I didn’t. We’d already had so many of our clothes stolen. You see you can’t leave anything out here, not even for a second, otherwise it’ll be taken immediately, even our toilet paper. Anyway the girl pulled a knife on me. And then someone informed the officers and we got caught.”
Without Charlotte to lean on, Serena felt utterly desolate. “I just stayed in my room all day and read. I cried a lot. The days passed so slowly, I just couldn’t wait for Charlie to get out of solitary. I felt so lost.”
When, 18 days later, Charlotte returned to the ambito she was in for another unpleasant shock. She found there was no bed for her to sleep on. She was forced to sleep on the floor for three weeks until another bed became vacant.
“It was horrible,” Charlotte said, “I was placed next to this woman who kept getting up to pee in a pot in the middle of the night. And it kept splashing into my face. It was disgusting.”
The woman in question turned out to be several months pregnant, Serena told me. “She was sent to the doctor who gave her a jab and after that jab she ended up losing her baby.”
I asked her if the jab was intended to abort the fetus. “I’ve no idea,” Serena replied, “all I know is that after that jab the woman lost her baby. She told us she delivered it outside in the prison grounds and then buried it in the long grass.”
The tiny corpse was never found but it’s likely it was immediately consumed by the swarms of black vultures that sit patiently in the branches of the overhanging trees waiting for any morsel of carrion.
Every day “El Buen Pastor” witnesses its share of fights, most are petty feuds, the settling of old scores, outbreaks of anger and frustration, but others are far more serious. There are some very tough women inside who manage to smuggle in knives and other weapons. They are constantly battling for favors from the guards or a position of power over the weaker inmates. Sometimes the prison officers break up the fights before they turn nasty, other times they are too intimidated to intervene and many times they are forced to call in the police.
Recently Baroness Dr. Vivien Stern, senior research fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London, spoke about Costa Rica’s prisons as “an excellent example of the effect that the valuing of respect and humanity as a two-way dynamic between officer and prisoner can have on a prison system. This results,” she went on to say, “in a very different atmosphere marked by actions such as calling a prisoner by their first name and prisoners approaching staff to raise points with them knowing they will be listened to.”
Although most of what I had heard so far about the treatment of the prisoners by the officers was negative, I asked Serena if there were any instances of kindness that she had received from them. “Well, yes,” she said, “one or two have been very nice to me, the ones that speak a bit of English. They have posted letters for me, arranged for me to see the Director and the doctor, that sort of thing. But mainly here prisoners run the prison, the guards are easily intimidated, that is well known by everyone.”
And this view does appear to be generally accepted as fact both within the prison population and among the wider community. With an inmate to staff ratio of 511 to 180, it is hardly surprising that the guards prefer to turn their backs and remain silent rather than participate in a potentially explosive scene.
“A lot of the tougher prisoners pay the guards to turn a blind eye,” Charlotte adds, “they can then bring in almost anything they like, including drugs, knives and alcohol. And then they either use them themselves or sell them off to the other girls.”
“Drugs are common here,” Serena agrees, “you can get them easily both from the prisoners and the guards.” From cannabis to crack cocaine, everything, it seems, is available in “El Buen Pastor” for the right price.
This availability of drugs and alcohol inside the prison directly contravenes Executive Degree No. 25.883, published in the official gazette La Gaceta, 31 March 1997, governing the confiscation of drugs and the control of medicaments within the Costa Rican prison system. This Regulation “strictly prohibits the entry of medicaments and the handling of substances which may have a negative impact on the health of persons in custody, including drugs, narcotics, psychotropic or psychopharmaceutical substances, inhalable substances, precursors and derivatives of alcohol.”
“We’ve seen girls being cut up by knives, often under the influence of drugs,” Serena said, “but we just try to stay out of it. One girl got her face all cut up just for making a noise while someone else was trying to sleep. It wasn’t even at night, it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And one time there was a “rampage” in the kitchen. For some reason we were given fried chicken instead of the usual stale bread, rice, beans and chunks of inedible pork. We were all so excited and everyone wanted to get served first to make sure they got the choicest bits so there was a stampede. But when we got back to our rooms to eat it, the fried chicken tasted of bleach, the cooking pans obviously hadn’t been rinsed out.”
This provoked another “rampage”. The inmates stormed the kitchen, shouting, hollering and threatening for some decent food. This time the police were called to end the fight and to protect the besieged kitchen staff. But, since there was no other food prepared that night, everyone went to bed hungry. As a result the inmates went on strike the next night.
“They refused to go back to their “ambitos” at bed time and stayed out in the pouring rain,” Serena explained. “Charlie and I went straight to bed because we didn’t want to be involved. But the others remained outside until the bosses and police were called in. They promised better food and better living conditions and the girls were eventually convinced to go back inside. But, of course, so far nothing’s changed.”
It has taken a while but Serena and Charlotte have now resigned themselves to their sentence. They try to avoid boredom at all costs. They spend their days drawing, reading, writing poetry and dreaming of the day they will be allowed to go home.
“I was already a qualified dental assistant with a good job before I left England,” Serena said. “When I go home I want to qualify as a dental hygienist.”
And Charlotte, what were her plans, I asked.
“I would like to study law so I can help other prisoners abroad but, with my two convictions, I don’t know if they’d let me.”
In my way of thinking, I said, that would make her particularly well qualified to help others who find themselves in the same situation as her.
“But the very first thing I want to do,” she continued, “apart, of course, from seeing my family, is to apologize to Serena’s parents. I feel really guilty and I want to tell them I’m truly sorry.”
Meanwhile, I reminded them, Lee and “Dreds” are still out there somewhere, free.
“When we got to “El Buen Pastor”” Charlotte told me, “we found out that several other inmates are serving time because of those two guys.”
I asked them how they felt about that.
Serena, the quintessential English rose with the soft voice, raised it several decibels, “I’d kill them,” she said. “If I ever saw them again I’d kill them!”
@Published in The Independent on Sunday