Two foreign drug mules suffering from HIV serving time in Huaraz prison

As a journalist I am always looking for interesting stories and one of those stories once took me to the Víctor Pérez Liendo penitentiary in Huaraz. Before actually going into the prison it’s important to do a little research, after all, visiting a penitentiary is not to be compared with visiting a zoo or amusement park. Surprisingly animals are to be found in Víctor Pérez Liendo as there are a couple of dogs living in the prison, amusement, however, is hard to find. The prison in Huaraz frequently features on the local news because it´s full to the brim, and because of the fact that agents of the Special Operations Executive (DIROES) in coordinated action with members of the Territorial Division of Huaraz often find cell phones, weapons and drugs. Hard to believe maybe but this is confirmed by the jailbirds themselves. Surprisingly I can recommend visiting the prison to tourists, it´s not something you would maybe do in your own country, but it´s reasonably safe to do so and the impressions you will get will be an experience to take away from your trip.

My first visit was three years ago when I heard about a then 51-year-old South African being held in there, and decided to pay him a visit. I was looking for a story and hoped he would be willing to cooperate. After a dozen visits and three years later, Lewis Charles Cornelius Strijdom told me that he was no longer the only foreign inmate; there was a lady from Spain as well. A quick look on the Internet showed that Lewis was talking about Montserrat González Hermina, a 37-year-old from Spain who was caught with over 23 kilos of cocaine in her luggage. What had she been thinking and why had she been transferred to Huaraz? But first I would like to go back three years, when I paid my first ever visit to a penitentiary, and as a foreigner I had no clue what to expect of a Peruvian prison.

My day started at nine o’clock in the morning when I met with someone from the Tourist Police to accompany me into the penitentiary. Having read Marching Powder and being a massive fan of prison movies like Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz and the series Prison Break, I was excited but honestly also nervous. Could I get in with my camera, would the guards let me have the interview and would the South African be willing to meet me? The day before an Irish guy and I went to the market to do some shopping. We bought some fruit, cookies, snacks and drinks. We´d been informed that these were common things to take to the penitentiary. Luckily someone from the Tourist Police joined us, making us feel a bit more at ease.

On Father´s Day, when we arrived at the penitentiary, we saw a long line of people, who were waiting to see their loved ones, family members or friends. From the outside, it didn´t look like a state-of-the-art prison. We could only visit the jail on Sundays as this is the only day it is possible to visit the male cons. After registering, we were told to leave our cameras, cellphones and other electronic devices at the office of the penal, which made sense but as we weren’t sure we took a gamble. The young Diego Placencia Vidal of the Tourist Police had to leave his gun and bullets behind as well. We had to register and leave our passport behind. The Irish lad had only brought a copy of his passport and this was just enough to pass, probably thanks to Diego of the Tourist Police. Shortly after that, we were searched individually by another guard. I went first and was out after 10 seconds having some pocket money and keys, but that was no problem at all. Then my Irish friend went through but that took longer than a minute. Pretty soon afterwards the guards told me that he couldn’t get in because of a visit to many bars the night before. He was denied entrance because he was still intoxicated. How irresponsible and poor me, I was on my own.
Once in the prison, I was ordered to sit down at one of those places where you can speak with the prisoners with a fence between the visitor and the prisoner. The guards told me that they would call the South African. Seconds later, Lewis Cornelius stood behind me. What? Could he just walk in there? Where I thought he´d at least be behind a fence, he stood at less than a metre from me. Could he stab me, hit and touch me? Yes, he could if he wanted to, but he did not.

He introduced himself and asked what I was here for. I told him I was making a newspaper in English in Huaraz and that I was wondering if he would tell me his story. I showed him the April, May and June editions of The Huaraz Telegraph I’d brought with me and gave him the food we had bought at the market. Sure, no problem, Lewis said. It was pretty clear Lewis was happy with my visit as he started to talk without even having asked him a single question. He flip-flopped from here to there and I had to ask him to slow down because I wasn’t able to process all of the scrambled information at once. He was full of energy but very calm. I didn’t feel uncomfortable when I told him that it would be better if I asked the questions and he would answer them. That’s probably better, yes, Lewis agreed. That’s how Lewis and I first met.

Lewis didn’t show all his cards on my first visits, which is understandable but on other visits he told me more and more about his life, his family and the circumstances in Víctor Pérez Liendo. Why did I keep visiting Lewis? I believe Lewis is guilty, as he admits himself, but there is a huge difference between a drug trafficker and a murderer or a child rapist. And he should pay for what he has done in terms of serving his sentence, and yes he is a criminal behind bars. But he is also a human being, a lone foreigner suffering maltreatment and discrimination, above all and this hasn’t been mentioned yet, he is suffering from HIV. We could say he is just happy with my visits so he can talk a little bit. To the reader I would like to say, ask yourself the following question, how would it be for us being held abroad in a prison while you are constantly discriminated and beaten, have no one that visits you nor to speak to and on top you are also suffering from HIV? Of course, no one would come up with the idea of visiting the prison on a rainy boring Sunday morning, although some tourists have. This is a summary of what Lewis shared on some of my visits. As electronic devices are forbidden to be brought into the prison, answers could not be recorded and had to be written down on a notepad so there may be a few innaccuracies.

Being caught at the airport

Lewis was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and needed some money and thought drugs were an easy chance to get some. It was agreed upon back in South Africa that he would transport three kilograms but the bag he got caught with contained 17 kilos. Lewis swore that he never touched the bag. He was living in an apartment in Miraflores and one day he left in a white taxi heading towards Jorge Chavez Airport. Half way through the journey he changed into another taxi and this is when Lewis received the bag and got shown the three kilograms. His flight was ready to go and would take him to Amsterdam and then onto Johannesburg. The person who was with Lewis called the porter to carry the bag, and Lewis claims he still hadn’t touched the bag at this stage. They went over the plastic wrap and wrapped the bag. The porter did all this for him as Lewis was flying first class. At the airport Lewis was told to go to gate seven to pay his taxes and off he went. Just as he was ready to walk off he was tapped on the shoulder and told to go with the officer on duty. The South African was taken to a police room and told to open the bag. This is the first time, according to Lewis, he touched the bag and then realised how heavy it was. He was screwed. They got a drill and tried to drill into the bag but actually broke the two drills. Then they got a grinder and cut the bag in half. When they did this, two bags fell out and rolled onto the table. It was at that point when Lewis realised that he had either been set up or was already a target. Lewis said he was promised 30,000 rand (S/. 7,702.67). The street value of the drugs broken down into one gram bags on the street would be several millions of rand. The police got out the camera and video and everyone turned up, it was a big deal a gringo getting busted. Lewis admitted to have trafficked before in other countries like Pakistan and Bolivia but never got caught.

In Lima prison Lewis obtained HIV

They took him to the DINANDRO Police Station where they held him for 15 days. In the following two weeks they took Lewis out 15 times to try and find the suppliers but without any result. Then he was sent to Sarita Colonia where he spent the first four years and eight months of his sentence. It’s there he contracted HIV through needles from the pharmacy. Lewis claims that one of the prisoners would extract his own blood and then they would put it into medicine in the pharmacy. Lewis became sick and was given a bad dose of medication and now he has to live with HIV for the rest of his life. Lewis spent four years in physiotherapy from the age of 7–11 because of brittle bones. He was given all sorts of drugs to try and fix the problem so now he has to have intravenous drugs to help him get through the day. Lewis got 12 years with no parole; however, he appealed the sentence, right at the same moment he heard it. About two minutes later his appeal was heard by the same magistrate and prosecutor. Lewis got the same penalty, a process that took more or less 20 months. He did lodge an appeal against the severity of the sentence with the Supreme Court and was told it would be dealt with in 10 days. He ended up going back to court five months later and lost the appeal. The Supreme Court called him back and ruled that his sentence could have benefits, which would mean he could be out in 4–6 years. Not bad considering the load he was caught with. Lewis, however, got transferred to the prison in Huaraz and couldn’t take his papers with him and now has to complete his full sentence.

Situation in Huaraz prison

On a visit in 2013, Lewis showed me a psychological report with no less than 106 attended sessions. Lewis also showed me the documents of his trial and subsequent sentence in 2006. The first thing I noticed was that the author had misspelled Amsterdam. For some reason I found this amusing and pointed out the error to Lewis. Among the documents there was an informe psicológico, which is a psychological report describing Lewis’s behaviour and conduct. According to this document Lewis was born on August 1st 1960, and has eight children.

Lewis is further described as follows: “He is a fair-skinned adult with brown hair and his personality is defined as that of a normal person and constitution. He is approximately 1.75m tall and presents with three tattoos – one on his left shoulder, another on his left hand, and the third one on his chest. Furthermore, he has one scar on his right hand which was the result of a motor accident.” Lewis declares in this document that his parents have passed away and that he is the youngest of 12 children. In addition, it states that Lewis is “co-operating very well and responds well to questions thinking them over before answering in a simple language, or plain Spanish.” His first psychological interview took place on the 8th of June 2010, and I read that he has had no less than 106 sessions already. Probably to kill time as well, because 106 is a lot! Lewis is showing “responsibility, punctuality and discipline” when present at those sessions. The document concludes mentioning that Lewis has “no signs of being a psychopath” and that the “likelihood of social reinsertion is high”, (out of high–medium–low) and that this psychological test “favours him of acceptance of the requested or claimed benefits”.

I asked Lewis why he was showing me his confidential psychological report when he didn’t have to. “Look, as I told you before on your first visit, I got sentenced 2-9-6 (code referring to the benefits or restrictions in prison). That sentence means that I can apply for parole. Instead, when I was transferred to Huaraz, I lost the benefits and the officials here hold me against my rights claiming I am here under the 2-9-7 sentence, which is the one without possible conditional release. As I have done half of my sentence, I should be released but no one wants to hear my case. I would have been out already if I had someone on the outside! I feel sad. You’ll understand that my psychological report shows that I do have a very good case even though I am constantly being victimised and beaten by the guards.” There is, however, no preliminary release possible because Lewis current sentence counts without the 2-9-6 code, he is being held prisoner under the 2-9-7 code.

His release and visitors

Lewis Cornelius will be released on Valentine´s Day 2017, still a long time to go. Obviously he is looking forward to it and isn’t sure what will happen to him. He is wondering if they put him on a plane, dump him just over the border or let him just go where ever he wants. Thanks to some articles we published about his case Lewis had a couple of visitors, mainly tourists. His last visit was by Terry Wall, an ex-prosecutor from Wollongong, New South Wales in Australia. During one other visit Lewis said the following: “Where we are now I have respect, but I have fought for it. They know I have HIV and I can take their lives. Do you think they (referring to his cell mates) would survive in a European or South African prison? Of course not, this place is a kindergarten!” Lewis also told me that his embassy came and visited in August 2012, I thought this was a positive thing and said as much to Lewis. “No it was not because I could hardly speak to them. The main guy was called Moheng Motlhale and he was accompanied by two others. It took the bastards 30 months to see me and this time the warden ruined it all. First he filled up his office with nurses saying there was no place where they could meet me, and then when they arrived the second time I got a call to report to the warden’s office, he said that we only had five minutes because the warden had to go. My rights are being violated.” At the moment of publishing this article, Lewis has not received visits of his embassy anymore although The Huaraz Telegraph did send an email to the Lima-based South African embassy but apparently Lewis is not of any interest to them.

Right now Lewis is 54 years of age and has been outside the walls of the prison three times. This was because of a visit to the regional hospital Víctor Ramos Guardia. Visits happened accompanied by two guards and a regular taxi. On coming out he said he´s going to write a book about his experiences. How does Lewis´s daily life on the inside look like? Roll call is at 8am and 5pm. He usually goes to roll call at 8am and then back to sleep till 11am, as he has nothing else to do, apart from Saturdays and Sundays when there are visiting opportunities, Lewis is selling candies at the entrance gate of the first patio, because he obtained a special permit to do that.

Montserrat Gonzales Hermina from Basque Country

As mentioned before, Lewis was the one who pointed out he was no longer the only gringo in the prison and thus I asked him if he could ask the lady from Spain if she would be willing to meet me. Just to set something straight, there are actually three foreigners in Huaraz´ prison, the third one is from Colombia. The lady agreed although my visit still came as a surprise. She probably didn’t believe Lewis when he told her about the fact I wanted to interview her. That Sunday when I visited the penal it took like fifteen minutes before Montserrat showed up. Later she told me that she was very nervous, had borrowed some shoes and even did her make up. Montserrat said I was the first person in five years to pay her a visit so she could simply not believe that there was actually someone for her this time, although she was actually hoping it would be her tiastra (step-aunt) who apparently lives in Los Olivas (Lima). After smoking a cigarette at the inner courtyard she was told to go inside again to the women’s wing so there was no other option for me but to follow her into the prison when I would have preferred to interview her at the entrance pavilion.

Nine years sentence, four transfers in five years’ time and HIV

In the women’s wing we sat down and I asked her what happened on the 7th of February 2009. She said the following: “At eight o’clock I packed my bags and went to Jorge Chavez Airport. At the airport I was stopped and asked about the bigger bag. At first I denied that the bag was mine but there was not much to deny. The fiscal showed up and they took all my belongings like money and other things I carried. I have trafficked before and got caught in Peru. Why I did it? Back then I had no home but I did have a son to look after. At the time I was 31 years old and was suffering from HIV. I obtained HIV because of my ex-partner. Life had no meaning to me so I decided to look for a way to make easy money for my family and the trafficking of drugs created this opportunity.”
I noticed that Montserrat started to feel a little bit more at ease and wondered why that would be. While I looked around I noticed that we had the attention of many people around us in the courtyard. I then asked her how she felt at the moment. “You know I feel more tranquil here in Huaraz. I got here on the 27th of March this year after having stayed in Chimbote’s penitentiary for two and a half years. I was transferred to Huaraz because I made problems back in Chimbote. On just a regular day, the guards came and said I had to prepare my stuff that I would be transferred to another penitentiary, which turned out to be the one in Huaraz. Like I mentioned before, things are quieter here, but there is seriously nothing to do here. It’s so boring, at least in Chimbote there were workshops or you could help in the kitchen doing some cooking. Look around, it’s dead.”

Her cell, circumstances and lifestyle

Indeed, there seemed not much to do than just sit and look around. Well, what would you expect in a prison? I was wondering how her cell looked and asked if I could see it. This wasn’t as easy as I thought so we decided to stay where we were, in the courtyard. Could you describe your cell? “We sleep with seven women in one cell, with bunk beds available on the second floor. There is a place where we can cook something and all our belongings are in the cell as well. You can move to another cell but the current holders of a cell have to accept the new cellmate. Someone can invite you to stay in their cell but if the other inmates don’t want you there, it’s a no go. You have to get along with some cell mates eventually. There are actually five people in this part of the prison I speak to and who I trust. I don’t have much contact with the other inmates. There are often fights within the block. Most fights are about money of course and others are about jealousy and how we are dressed.” Life is pretty much very boring and according to Montserrat the screaming and loud music doesn’t help either.

“There are I believe 46 women at the moment and the girls I talk to are not all cellmates but they help me a lot, mentally. Others make me feel like shit, if I may speak out loud. There is a lot of discrimination going on here, because I am La Gringa. I am almost willing to say that if I make it back alive to Spain, I will treat Peruvians the same as they treated me over here. There are too many egoists, hypocrites and bad people around me, not to mention the food. Fatal! I believe the rules in the women´s wing are a lot stricter compared to the male part.” So what is a normal day for you? “I normally wake up at around 5 a.m. and then an hour and a half later the doors are opened so we can get out of the cells. On a normal day I take a shower, clean a little bit, eat breakfast and play some solitaire, a card game. Most of the time I talk to my cellmates or I am on my own. I maybe prefer to be on my own. At 9 p.m. the lights go out and the cell doors are locked. Most of the female guards are OK, if you behave yourself you won’t get into much trouble.”

Romance, marriage and death

When I looked around the pavilion I noticed that there were a few couples sitting on the courtyard but they didn’t seem to talk a lot. There was one couple that was kissing all the time, as the others were just looking around. I guess a more dramatic style of romance could not be found anywhere else in Huaraz at that same moment. It made me wonder if Montserrat had a partner in jail. She did not, so she said; although in Chimbote she had some sort of a relationship but suffering from HIV made it simply impossible to have sexual relationships. Montserrat while smoking another cigarette said that the couple we were looking at recently got married in prison; speaking of romance again! Inmates get dressed up and men put on a suit and then someone from the municipality shows up who does the paperwork.

I also noticed that Montserrat had a couple of tattoos on her body and asked about the one in her neck which said Amar. “Amar is my son. You know, I am not afraid of death, but the thing that scares me the most is dying without seeing him again. Leaving my family behind is what would hurt the most. I still have contact with most members of my family. I sometimes call with my brother in Spain and they put me on speaker so my son, brother’s wife, my mother and niece can hear me. If I make it out alive I would run back to Spain, and get the hell out of this country. You know, the last time I visited the doctor in Chimbote, just before my transfer he told me that I was closer to the garden of remembrance than entering a home for the elderly. Harsh but that confirms why I might not make it out of prison alive. Speaking of which, did you know that most of the women in this part of the prison are in for murder? Most for murdering their husband or partner and some are in for drugs or theft.”

Rain, medication, tears, goodbye and a strong hug

Just when I was about to leave, I noticed that it had started to rain. When I asked the female guard if I could get out, I was told I could not. Between one and two in the afternoon, there is a lunch break so no visitors can enter, nor leave the prison. It was a quarter to two so it didn’t really matter. At that moment Montserrat got her medication served and she said that she had to take five pills a day to battle here disease.

I got the impression that Montserrat liked my presence and wanted me to stay a little longer. I asked her if there was a psychologist or social worker in the prison she could speak to. “There is a lady that occupies that position but the last time I spoke to her she got me into a deep depression. I found out while being on the phone with my brother that my father had passed away two years ago. On top of the discussions we had, the psychologist filled in a form and declared me being a manipulator. She has absolutely zero understanding of her job.” Talking about her life and her father brought memories up and I could see tears appear in Montserrat’s eyes. Of course, she made the decision to commit a crime and was caught. I asked myself how it would be not being sure if you would wake up the next day. And how would it be living in prison without seeing one single visitor in five years?

Just before saying goodbye there was one more thing I wanted to know. Montserrat told me that the contact she had with her family was over the phone, but how come that Lewis is never able to receive phone calls from South Africa? “There is a public phone on the wall here we can use, an also cellphone here, and we have to pay the girl to use it.” Isn´t that forbidden? “Of course it is! But everything you find out of these walls on the streets, you can also find on the inside. Alcohol, drugs and goods are all available here. I don’t know if the guards know about it, but ask yourself how do you think these things enter the penitentiary?” I didn’t have a clue and the answer was surprising and shocking, and it is not appropriate to share it here.

When I said goodbye Montserrat asked me to come back soon, to which I replied that I will be back one day. I prefer not to make promises because you never know what happens and sometimes it’s better to visit people when they don’t expect it. I received a sturdy hug and walked towards the exit, where Lewis was still selling candy. I had the feeling that Montserrat felt a lot better after my visit and that’s what the visit was all about. Without a doubt, it’s nice to get the credit for the story, but honestly I don’t care, most important is the social impact of the visit for the prisoner.

The fact that Lewis has already had four different foreign tourists visit him in the past years compared to none previously makes me feel happy for Lewis; after all visiting the prison is one thing, but staying there overnight – not in a million years.

I sincerely hope Montserrat will also soon be welcoming some visitors, and if there will be none, well it will be just me then. Montserrat, if still alive, will be released on the 18 of February 2018.

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