Locked Up Abroad: Ealing Woman In Peruvian Jail

' Susan' talks exclusively to Rory Thomas about her experiences

(illustration by Rory Thomas)


Sign up for our weekly Ealing newsletter

Comment on this story on the

“There were cockroaches…loads of cockroaches”, she winced. “At night, they crawled through the hollow of your bed. You could hear them. We used to stuff the hollow frame with paper and set fire to it. Then they came screaming out the other end.” Susan recounts the wretched conditions of her prison cell in Santa Monica Women’s Jail in Peru.

She served four, of a nine-year sentence for attempting to traffic illicit substances to the UK, before receiving a pardon from the President of Peru in 2009. Susan isn’t her real name. She asked that it be changed before publication to protect the identity of her children and grandchildren. For the same reason, she also requested not to be photographed. She did however, agree to have her image drawn.

Susan is 63 years-old, short in stature, with a rueful face and thin yellow hair. She lives alone in a modern one bedroom flat off Ealing Broadway, has two children - a girl and a boy - and grandchildren. She grew up in South Ealing. Three days per week Susan is one of three core volunteers at Ealing Soup Kitchen where she has worked for eighteen months. The charity - which provides food and other services to the homeless and the needy - has been running since 1973 and has its main premises at Saint John’s church, Mattock Lane. “I love it!” she beams. “I hate it if I can’t go and I feel I might be letting people down. We have a great laugh, people give me a hug or a kiss…there's people who are a pain in the arse but there’s people who are a pain in the arse everywhere.”

Before she became a volunteer at the soup kitchen, Susan was a client. She was referred by RISE (Recovery Intervention Services Ealing) where she was, at the time, receiving therapy for crack cocaine addiction. “Most of my life I occasionally used cocaine. I’m not a drinker, I just fall asleep. But (Charlie) made me so happy, and talkative. One day someone said, ‘you like coke – try this’, and it was crack.” She maintains there is no detox for crack because it is generally accepted that the drug is not physically additive. “I disagree, you’re hooked the first time – its euphoria. But its short-lived and ten minutes later you’re looking for the next one.” She recalls she started using crack regularly around 2005.

Before long, Susan found herself addicted to crack cocaine and deeply in debt for several thousand pounds. With no way to repay the money and in a fit of desperation she accepted an ultimatum from her dealer who guaranteed - if she accepted - the debt would be cleared and leave her with some residual money to live on. She was to travel with an affiliate to Lima, Peru, in South America, collect 6kg of cocaine and transport the drugs back to the UK in a suitcase. “I was living in a really rough area of Northolt at the time. He paid for my flights and the hotel, he bought me a suitcase. I went with this guy who had done it before - a friend of the dealer. We were there two weeks. I went off and did the sightseeing stuff - Machu Picchu and all that - and he went out and got the stuff.”

At the end of the two weeks Susan was back at the airport checking her suitcase containing the cocaine and preparing to fly. “They put it on the carousel and off it went - everything was fine. But then, randomly, they just decided to check it. I was shaking head to foot.” Officials found not six but 16kg bricks of cocaine wrapped in Susan’s clothes. “I had no idea there was that many – I was shocked. They even brought a dog in after the fact to appear like an official bust.” She was put in a holding cell and later taken to the Palacio de Justica. Within a month, Susan was in Santa Monica Prison. But it would be a year before she was officially found guilty for ‘trafficking of illicit drugs’. She went to prison in 2005.

She becomes sombre. “The prison…it was awful. Old, dilapidated, falling apart, overcrowded. Everyone is lumped together: murderers, terrorists, child abusers - you name it. There were cockroaches. 6am start, cold water showers and filthy mattresses. At Christmas, all we got was the little complimentary shampoo bottles you get in hotels…and six-month-old copies of The Times! I shared my cell with two others…it was about 6x8ft. When I arrived, a girl who had already served two years took me under her wing and introduced me to nice people, and helped me to speak Castellano.” Inside the prison there was a laundry, hair salon and a kitchen. Inmates taught languages, cut hair or made bags to earn money, or get reduced sentences. Susan begins to cry. “It was even worse because both my parents died from cancer within six months of one another while I was inside…It’s still painful because I felt like I exacerbated their condition.” Her consolation was visits from her son once a year with letters and chocolates, phone calls, and financial support from her children to find a good lawyer.

“One morning they came and got me, waving a form. It was official pardon from the President of Peru, Alan Garcia Perez. That was 10am. I was out by 3pm. I was shaking so much I couldn’t give my fingerprint.” She claims it was the first pardon for a British citizen in twenty years. She produces a wad of legal documents, police reports and affidavits - some bearing the official stamp of the Judiciary of Peru; some daubed with inky finger prints. “It’s so corrupt. It took years to find all the people involved, and the employees of the hotel and airport who handled my bag. Once they had their testimonies that I hadn’t handled the bag and didn’t know the weight, I was pardoned. Four years.” Attached to the documents is a photograph of Susan at the time of the arrest. She is much thinner, almost gaunt, with thick blonde hair and wide curious eyes.

After her release, Susan returned to the UK where she has lived since. Her father had served on the HMS Belfast and she received special permission to scatter his ashes on the ship. She tried to find her dealer to tell him about her ordeal, but after several failed attempts, she gave up. She never saw him again. “When I got home I did nothing for six months. Then I started using crack heavily once more.” For a while Susan had nightmares. She still sleeps with the light on at night and the sound of metals gates startle her. But after therapy and working for Ealing Soup Kitchen, she feels stronger and uses her unique experience to help others. “They taught me how to deal with the terrible…the guilt of using and the thought of not being a good mum. I can’t thank them enough. If people ask me (at the soup kitchen) then I’ll tell them. Then they know, I know, where they’re coming from. I just don’t judge anybody. As Shakespeare said: ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ - I really believe everyone deserves respect. This gives me purpose. I feel like I’m making a difference. I’m different. I feel I can help people.”

After being in prison and going through so much, Susan values her family above all. She has now been clean for four years and enjoys little freedoms like paying bills, the view from her flat and volunteering. She recently celebrated her sixty third birthday and is now looking forward to being a grandmother.

Rory Thomas


11 July 2017

Bookmark and Share