True confessions: Canadians imprisoned abroad

Shame. Anger. Depression. Guilt. Pain.

These five words keep cropping up in the stories you are about to read. Six Canadians imprisoned abroad for drug-related offences have agreed to share their thoughts and feelings about their arrest and incarceration. These are all true stories.

Throughout the six stories, you may notice some common threads. Zack, Lucie, Peter, Marie-France, Beatrice, and Nancy learned these lessons the hard way. Being caught with drugs or trying to cross the border with drugs in a foreign country – any foreign country – could mean a stiff fine, a long prison sentence, hard labour, or even the death penalty. Do not carry anything, including parcels, gifts or luggage, across borders or through customs for other people, under any circumstances.

True confessions

True confessions: Zack

  • Age 45
  • Unemployed but trained as a truck driver
  • No previous criminal record
  • Arrested for importation and possession of ecstasy and cocaine
  • Serving 20 years in a Federal Detention Center near Seattle, Washington

“I’d spent ages looking for a job and I wasn't having any luck. My unemployment benefits were about to run out and I wanted to make some fast money. When an old high school pal told me I could score a bundle of cash by helping him smuggle drugs from B.C. into Washington, I barely hesitated. He had a brilliant plan, and I figured we couldn't possibly get caught.

Before leaving Canada, we picked up 30 kilos of ecstasy and 12 kilos of coke from our “business partners” in Vancouver and hid the drugs in a commercial shipment of frozen goods destined for Seattle. I told my family I was going skiing on Mount Rainier in Washington State to get away from the pressures of job-hunting.

When we crossed the B.C.-Washington border, we tried to play it cool, but we must have looked nervous or suspicious. The U.S. customs officials in Blaine asked us to pull over for inspection. We couldn’t say much about what was on board, so they searched the truck trailer and found the drugs hidden inside some frozen squid. We were arrested immediately.

Life in a federal penitentiary is no walk in the park. The food is vile, there’s absolutely no privacy, and there’s constant conflict among the prisoners. Inmates often get beaten and sexually assaulted. All I can say is I’ve learned a lot from my experience. But I’ll be old before I see the outside of a penitentiary again. I’d give anything not to have put myself and my family through all this pain and humiliation.”

True confessions: Lucie

  • Age 34
  • Nurse
  • No previous criminal record
  • Arrested for trafficking cocaine
  • Imprisoned for five years in a Miami jail

“My friend and I were contacted by an acquaintance who asked us if we wanted a free trip to Colombia and $2,000 each if we brought some cocaine back with us. We didn't think it was a big deal, so we agreed. We decided to keep it a secret — I didn't want to tell my boyfriend or my family. We flew to Cartagena, and on the last day of our vacation we met the contact person. My friend and I each swallowed a kilo of cocaine, broken down into packages the size of my thumb. I have to admit that we were really nervous.

We had a stopover in Miami and were immediately detained and questioned. I still don't know what tipped the immigration officers off. We weren't allowed to contact anybody, and they took us to a hospital where we were forced to swallow a laxative and submit to a blood test to check if drugs were in our bodies or if we were pregnant. My friend was pregnant, so she didn't have to have an X-ray. Two days later, we passed the drugs.

When I first went to court, the judge decided that I would be held without bail until the hearing. I was allowed to call my mother. She couldn't believe what had happened or what I had done. She had to call my employers to let them know what was up and to tell them I obviously wouldn't be in to work my next shift.

The jail was hell. There were about 25 other prisoners in a large cell with four wings, where we slept in groups of five or six. All of us shared only one toilet bowl and a shower. The food was terrible and the company was worse. A lawyer was appointed to me, but I didn't have confidence in him. I really felt low.

The week before I was released I suffered from terrible headaches and earaches. I couldn't sleep at all. I didn't receive any treatment until the fifth day. I was in agony. Finally, my release date came. I was dropped off in the street in the middle of Miami with no identification or luggage. I went straight to the Canadian consulate general and then returned to Montreal.

My experience cost my family close to $3,000 in phone calls and freight charges. But it cost them more than money — I had really hurt them by what I had done.

I no longer talk to my friend. I want to turn the page on that particular chapter of my life. I know I acted stupidly and I am ashamed of what I did. I just hope other people won't be as naive as I was.”

True confessions: Peter

  • Age 35
  • Lost his job because of drugs
  • No previous criminal record
  • Arrested for importation of marijuana
  • Sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban jail

“I started taking drugs at a pretty young age. I didn't think it was a big deal — I was able to hold a job and play on a hockey team. Hash and pot were my favourite drugs. I had tried the harder stuff, but I was smart enough at the time to realize that they could really mess up my life. I was living at home with my parents because they were both in wheelchairs and needed my help. I needed them too — we had a really nice life together and a very loving relationship. I was especially close to my dad.

When my father died, my life started to go downhill. I started to do cocaine. I guess the effects were obvious to my family and friends, although I couldn't see them at the time. I was kicked off the hockey team because of my behaviour. I stopped working out. I lost my new car because I couldn't afford the payments. I lost my job. The worst thing was that I lost the house that my mother and I were living in, so we were forced to move to an apartment. When my unemployment cheques ran out, I thought I had hit rock bottom. We couldn't afford to live on my mom's disability cheques. I really hated myself. I had lost my dignity and I was desperate.

I met someone who told me I could make some easy money smuggling drugs. I was scared of the idea, but I really needed the cash. In December 1996, I flew to Cuba along with another guy who had just returned from a successful drug run two weeks before. I never thought to ask him about the circumstances of his last trip.

He had arranged for us to fly to Panama for two days to pick up the stash. When we returned to Cuba, we were arrested. He immediately denied that he was involved and pointed the finger at me. We had put the 10 kilos of marijuana in my suitcase because it had a lock. This guy handed me over on a silver platter to the cops. I couldn't believe that he would turn face and rat on me. I didn't deny that I had smuggled the drugs. My dad had taught me to face up to my responsibilities and mistakes — that's what a man should do.

I was placed in a dark cell that smelled of urine and worse. I could hear rats scuttling around. I was so scared I could barely move, much less sleep. I kept thinking about my mom, my brothers and sister and how upset they'd be when they found out what happened. When the guards came for me in the morning, they searched my suitcase again in front of me. A bunch of my personal stuff was missing, but I knew there was no use arguing about it. I was returned to a cell with three other prisoners. They couldn't speak any English, and I didn't speak Spanish, so we couldn't communicate. I felt so alone.

The food is just awful in prison. We were given bread and water for the first day or so. The water was a milky colour and it made me really ill. When we finally got some meat I couldn't eat it — it was infested with worms and bugs. I lost a lot of weight — about 15 pounds in the first month alone.

I still haven't learned how to deal with the bugs and rats that have invaded my cell. At night they run all over me when I'm sleeping. It's a horrible feeling, like something out of a horror movie.

It took close to six months for my case to come to trial. I was loaded into a van with no windows, along with some other prisoners. The drive was only supposed to take half an hour, but the van broke down and we spent about three hours stuck in the back sweltering. The guards refused to let us out. When we finally arrived at the courthouse, I was a mess. It took another six weeks for my sentence to be handed down. To everybody's surprise, I was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Nobody thought it would be that long — least of all me.

I can't tell you how unbearable my situation is. My family has suffered, and so have I. I live with a broken heart every day. I wish I could turn back the clock and change things. No amount of money is worth this ordeal.”

True confessions: Marie-France

  • Age 25
  • Unemployed, mother of a three-year-old son
  • No previous criminal record
  • Arrested for trafficking hashish
  • Spent one year in a Moroccan jail

“I thought I had it made. I had found a great job, bought a new car and was living on my own in an apartment. I really felt I had control of my life. Then I met Michel. My parents didn't like him and I could understand why: he was having a love affair not only with me, but also with cocaine. I had tried it a few times in high school, but when Michel moved in, it only became natural to share a couple of lines with him. I became hooked too. A year after I met Michel, I gave birth to our son, Maxime. By this time, Michel was shooting cocaine. It made him crazy. He ignored the baby and often verbally ripped me apart and even hit me. I still loved him though. The cocaine helped us bond. I even quit my job so that we could spend more time together.

Coke is an expensive habit, and with me not working, we needed some cash so we could score some more drugs. An acquaintance knew of our troubles and said that we could make some easy money by travelling directly to Morocco on a return flight and smuggling hashish. For each gram we carried, we'd get $2.00. That deal fell through. Instead, he offered us $1.50 a gram. We weren't crazy about this deal — we thought it was too risky. Both Michel and I tried to say no, but he wouldn't take that for an answer. He threatened us, so we felt we had no choice but to accept.

The three of us flew to Rabat, Morocco. I didn't want to leave Maxime behind, and Michel figured he'd be a good cover for us. We met up with our contact person at the airport, but the supplier never appeared. Instead, the guy at the airport offered us a flat rate of $6,000 to smuggle the hash back to Montreal. We jumped at the chance. We spent a week hanging out at the beach and on the last day we met again with the contact person, who helped us tape more than two kilos of hash all over our bodies: our stomachs, backs, thighs and anywhere else it wouldn't show. At the airport, Michel, who was carrying Maxime, was stopped by the customs agents. I had already passed through customs with no problem, but there was no way I was going to leave my son. I went back and they arrested both Michel and me. I was really scared at this point and so was Maxime, even though he didn't know what was happening. The social services people took him away from me, and I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. I'd never felt so awful in my life.

They did allow me to call my mom back home. She was really upset but got on a plane right away to pick up Maxime and take him home. Before my hearing, I spent 21 days in jail. It gave me plenty of time to think about my life, my relationship with Michel and my responsibilities as a mother. I felt my life was a failure. At my hearing, I was sentenced to 10 months. It was awful. The guards and the other prisoners treated me like dirt. I had nothing in common with them. I felt really alienated and alone. The conditions weren't that great, either. There were cockroaches in my jail cell, and there were lots of times when I had to sleep on the floor. When my time was up, I was ecstatic. I couldn't wait to get out of there. Then they told me I'd have to spend another 45 days in jail because of a problem with immigration procedures. I was so depressed. I didn't know how I could handle being in there for any longer.

When I was finally released, I broke up with Michel. Maxime and I moved in with my parents.

I really wish I could turn back time and start again. The time I spent in jail was the worst time of my life. I can only caution others who think about smuggling drugs to not do it. It's not worth the money. It's not worth your freedom. And it's definitely not worth your self-respect.”

True confessions: Beatrice

  • Age 30
  • Legal secretary
  • Single, with two sons
  • Arrested for trafficking cocaine
  • Imprisoned in Bangkok, Thailand, serving a three-year sentence

“I really needed some money. I had just bought new furniture and some toys for the kids with the money from my job, but I still needed cash. I called a drug dealer who was a friend of mine and told him I would smuggle drugs for him. I figured I could do the job in a week and come home $5,000 richer. The night before my flight to Thailand, my daughter woke up, calling for me. I went in to comfort her. She put her arms around my neck and begged me not to go away because she was scared I wouldn't come back. All I could do was hold her. Little did I know she was right.

When I got to Thailand, I was hot, tired and scared. I looked for my contact. I had no idea what he looked like but was to give a code word to anybody who came and talked to me. After about an hour, my contact approached me. When we finally got to our destination, I felt mentally and physically exhausted.

The morning of my departure, my contact came to my hotel to deliver the drugs. The heroin was wrapped up in a cylinder. I inserted it in my vagina. It was incredibly uncomfortable, and I wondered how I could stand the trip. When I got to the airport it felt like a bad dream. I made it through security, and then just as I was about to walk through the sliding glass doors to the departure lounge I heard a voice say "excuse me, ma'am." I turned around and a man asked if he could speak to me. I was taken to a table where my bag was searched and they asked me a lot of questions. I somehow stayed very calm. They then took me to a room where I was questioned by a number of different people. They finally told me I was under suspicion of drug trafficking and told me that I could either tell the truth or they'd do an internal search. I owned up fast, but I still had to go to the hospital to remove the cylinder. Before we left, they handcuffed me, taped my legs together and marched me through the airport. Everybody stared at me — I had never felt so embarrassed in my life.

After waiting a few hours in a jail cell, I was taken to a washroom where I was strip-searched, finger and palm-printed and photographed. Finally, I was allowed a phone call. I called my son's father and told him what had happened. I asked him to take care of the kids for me until I got back. I was then escorted to another jail, where I was put in a cell with 20 other women. There were only two benches to sit on. We all had to use the same toilet, which was out in the open for all to see. It was absolutely disgusting. The next morning, all of the women were handcuffed together and we shuffled off to court.

During the five months before I was sentenced, I fell into the deepest depression I had ever known. I beat myself up every minute of the day, day after day. I was so stressed that my hair started to break off and fall out. I got acne and I lost weight. The noise level in the prison drove me crazy. My son's father had stopped writing, and I was worried sick about my kids. I found out that he was back on drugs. One day he dropped the kids off at their grandparents' and then never picked them up again. I felt so awful for my children.

Once I was sentenced, I tried to change my life around. I started to exercise and take care of myself. I had become a bit of a hypochondriac because they told me that I had tuberculosis. I was put in isolation until they could take me to a hospital for chest X-rays. It turned out that I didn't have TB after all. I entered a drug rehabilitation program. I credit it with saving my life. I decided that I wanted to do something positive with my life — get an education and then a decent job. I studied for my high school equivalency exams and graduated at the top of my class.

I have felt so much guilt and pain over leaving my children. I miss my kids, my home and my country. When I get home, I'm going to try to gradually win my kids' trust back. I don't want to uproot them again. When we're finally settled, I want to go to university and get a degree in psychology, maybe even a master's degree. I'm going to stay off drugs. I want to work in a field that will help others. Most of all, I want a good, stable life for me and my kids. They deserve it and so do I.”

True confessions: Nancy

  • Age 26
  • Mother of two children
  • No previous criminal record, but has lived a troubled life
  • Arrested for trafficking heroin
  • Spent a year in a Jamaican prison

“This was not the first time I had smuggled drugs. Sarah, an older woman I had met, had offered me 5,000 English pounds — the equivalent of about $12,000 Canadian — to bring cocaine from Jamaica to the United Kingdom earlier that year. Although I was uneasy about what I was doing, I was the single mother of two small boys and had financial problems; I didn't feel I had any other option.

The four of us, Sarah, myself and her two children left for Jamaica, enjoyed two weeks in the sun, and landed in the U.K. wearing shoes with drugs concealed right in them. No one gave us a second look at customs; it was the easiest money I ever made. I returned to my children thousands of dollars richer and with no regrets.

The second time I received a call from Sarah, my eldest son was living with my parents; my youngest was being cared for by his father. It was a difficult time in my life and I needed to get back on my feet financially, as well as emotionally. The promise of easy money and a vacation to boot seemed like a well-timed answer to my problems.

Sarah told me I wouldn't be travelling with her; rather, her friend Lauren would join me. I was nervous. I didn't know Lauren — could she be trusted? Would she handle herself properly? Admittedly, I was not entirely aware of the consequences of this dangerous game I was playing, but I knew enough to realize any mistake could result in trouble. I decided to take my chances. Sarah was a friend; she wouldn't put me in harm's way.

Sarah assured me that everything would go exactly the same as it had the last time. We were to deal with the same contacts in Jamaica as before. That was some comfort — I knew these people and figured they would protect their investment. The people I dealt with in Jamaica took their business very seriously. Before we left for the U.K. and received the shoes stuffed with a kilo of coke, we went through a series of prayers and rituals that they believed would offer us protection from any harm. I went along with everything, but I remember just wanting to get this over with and get back to my kids.

When we arrived at the airport it was deserted, and I recall that even most of the check-in counters were closed. With every step I took in those shoes, I grew more and more uneasy. Lauren began to argue with the ticket agent, I don't even remember why, but I remember feeling sick, knowing we had drawn attention to ourselves in the already empty airport.

We made it through security and into the boarding area. Before I was even able to register that we had made it through the first leg of our journey safely, we were approached by a police officer. "Sit down and take off your shoes," she said. I knew in my heart it was over. Lauren lost it: she began to cry and make excuses, even going so far as to try and bribe the police. I sat silently as the graveness of my situation sank in.

We were brought to a holding cell at the police station behind the airport. Little did we know that night that we would sit in that same cell for almost three months. I was allowed to call my parents, who didn't know I had even left the country! They had been so kind, agreeing to care for my eldest son while I got myself back on my feet. And now here I was arrested for exporting cocaine.

My family arrived in Jamaica shortly after, and as much as I appreciated their visit, I was devastated. My son had seen his mother in jail. Having him see me that way, at my lowest point, was the worst experience of my life. My parents were supportive but scared. This was a drug-related crime, after all, and they were afraid to even stay in Montego Bay where I was being held. They retained a lawyer for me, and it wasn't long before I had my first day in court.

In those three months we made over 14 court appearances, attempting to get bail, offering lame defences and arguing technicalities, all in the attempt to avoid the inevitable. When the day finally did come, I was fined about $6,000 and sentenced to eight months in prison. Admittedly the holding cell had been an awful experience, but it did nothing to prepare me for what was to come in a penitentiary.

I and six other inmates were brought to a women’s prison standing on the back of a truck in makeshift cells. It was about a three-hour ride with only one stop. When we arrived at the prison, we were brought into a receiving dorm. We were photographed, and those women who had braids, weaves or long hair had to have them cut out. We were given red plaid polyester dresses for uniforms and had to wear them in the hot sun, day after day. The prison had no running water — we were allowed to fill a bucket from a water truck once a week. I can remember begging other prisoners for water just so I could wash. The food was unbearable, the same meal every day: tinned mackerel and dumplings. Occasionally we would have porridge, and a slice of bread was considered a treat. I lost over 30 pounds there, and my system has yet to return to normal.

There was a great deal of violence in the prison, those convicted of relatively minor crimes mixed with hardened criminals serving life sentences. As a foreigner I stood out, and inmates were constantly trying to pick fights with me. My nerves were shot, my skin was burned from the sun, my hair started to fall out and I ate less and less each day. My only comfort was in writing. I wrote down my experiences, poetry and many, many letters to my dear parents and children. The level of illiteracy at the prison was astounding. I began to write letters for other prisoners to their families. This made my stay a little more bearable as I made a few friends.

When I did finally leave prison, after my parents had paid my fine and my sentence was complete, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I hope that no one will ever be tempted to take the chance I did. There is never a situation that will be resolved by resorting to the kind of crime I committed. And nothing will ever make my life the same again. I wouldn't wish that hardship on anyone.”

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