Three gringas lament their life in a Colombian prison

Associated Press Writer

Sipping broth in a maximum-security Colombian prison wasn’t part of the weight-loss plan Vivian Carrasquillo envisioned two years ago when a friend knocked on her New York apartment door with a lucrative offer.

Carrasquillo desperately wanted money for gastrointestinal surgery so she could shed some of her 440 pounds. The friend offered $20,000 for a round-trip to Colombia that Carrasquillo, then 18, knew would be risky.

Caught leaving Bogota with nearly 4 1/2 pounds of heroin hidden in her bra, underwear and pants, she earned semi-permanent residence in this land of her grandmother’s birth on Dec. 31, 2004.


Until a few weeks ago, Carrasquillo was one of three American women doing time in Buen Pastor, Bogota’s best-known prison for women. All three were convicted of drug smuggling. She doesn’t know how many pounds she has lost during her incarceration, but her pants were taken in three times.

Drug traffickers are increasingly recruiting non-Colombians to ferry drugs to the United States and Europe. Last year was the first that more foreigners than Colombians have been arrested trying to sneak illegal drugs onto commercial flights.

In 2006, more than 63 foreigners and 29 Colombians were caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Bogota’s El Dorado airport -- the nation’s busiest. Hiding places included AA batteries and roll-on deodorant.

The day she was caught at El Dorado, Carrasquillo had awakened so nervous she couldn’t eat breakfast. She’d had vivid dreams of crying behind bars, and her handler gave her anti-anxiety pills.

“I was really calm and pretty doped up,” she said. “I went through the X-ray search and the security guard went straight to my breasts and told me to go into the examination room.”

“I was stupid,” she added.

When the tranquilizers wore off and Carrasquillo realized she was going to be stuck in prison, she pounded on her cell door and screamed for hours.

She missed hot showers, American food and her mother. But at least she had two American friends at Buen Pastor -- Marla David, 25, of Lancaster, Pa., and Heather Ebling, 24, of Reading, Pa. Fellow inmates dubbed them “Las Gringas.”

Ebling claimed she was bullied into pleading guilty to drug smuggling after her arrest last April. She said she had no idea her traveling companion had a cocaine-packed suitcase, but gave in to the judge’s threat to double her sentence to eight years if she didn’t plead guilty.

Police found 11 pounds of heroin in David’s suitcase in June 2005. She said she thought she was transporting counterfeit dollars, not drugs.

Luckily for the three women, Colombian jail sentences tend to be shorter than those meted out in the United States for drug crimes. Ebling and Carrasquillo got four years, while David got 10 years, eight months. Generally, such prisoners are released early on supervised parole, as Carrasquillo was a few weeks ago.

That doesn’t make life any easier in Buen Pastor, which holds about 4,000 women.

“Everyone here gets visits every weekend and sees their kids and their families, and our family is so far away,” said David, who has a 5-year-old daughter.

In the United States, David was juggling motherhood, a customer service job at a car company and classes in forensic investigation, hoping to make a career in law enforcement. Ebling worked in customer service at a bank and cared for a toddler son. Carrasquillo was barely out of high school and living with her mother.

The prisoners’ days are long and slow, affording abundant time for reflection.

Sitting in the sun in a prison yard during an interview before Carrasquillo’s release, the three Americans’ hair was gelled, their blue eyeliner applied perfectly. Instead of prison coveralls, David wore a denim miniskirt and Ebling wore a red dress.

“Overall the jail here isn’t that bad. We wear our own clothes and open and close our own doors,” said Carrasquillo. “It’s the littlest things you think about in here, like opening a refrigerator ... and speaking English.” Of the three, only Carrasquillo speaks fluent Spanish.

David and Ebling share a 9-by-9-foot cell. Its walls are a soft blue, a rainbow is outlined on the ceiling and pictures of the women’s children are taped beside their beds.

Both women keep diaries to give their children one day. David addressed her daughter in a recent entry: “You lost your first tooth today. God, I wish I could be home with you. Today is the first day I haven’t smoked, I’m stressed and need a cigarette but I refuse to smoke again. I want to live a long life and be by your side forever.”

David’s daughter, who is being raised by her maternal grandmother, has been seeing a psychologist. The child’s father was arrested with David at the airport and is serving the same sentence in a male prison.

“I grew up in a good household,” David said. “The hardest part about this experience is thinking about the pain I’ve caused my family.”

Next to David’s bed is a picture of her daughter in a swimming pool. Floating beside her is Ebling’s 5-year-old son. When the two women found out they lived within 30 minutes of each other back in Pennsylvania -- they had frequented the same clubs and had common friends -- they got their children’s guardians in touch.

While in prison, Carrasquillo often dreamed of walking freely beyond the walls but worried what would happen during her supervised parole, the time she must stay in Colombia. She was crushed to read that her release papers said 10 months.

She can no longer afford a lawyer to represent her in trying to get that time shortened. The U.S. Embassy, she said, has been little help and if it weren’t for a family from a local church who gave her housing, she would probably be living on the streets.

“If the judge tells me I can’t leave, I don’t know, then I have to stay,” said Carrasquillo, 20. “I can’t work, I’m not a citizen or a resident, so I can’t get a job. Most Colombians can’t get a job; how does the government expect me to find one?”

It’s been an emotional time for her. “The first thing I did when I was out was take a hot shower and cry my eyes out,” she said. “I cried again when I ate with a metal spoon and on a glass plate.”

Every Sunday she visits Ebling and David in the jail. It’s hard for her being away from them and odd being the one on the outside.

“If there were no good-hearted people out there, after we are released, we would have nowhere to go. Back home, foreigners get deported when they are released; their feet don’t even touch the street,” said Carrasquillo. “Now I just want to go home. I still feel trapped.”