How I Went From Running My Own Restaurant To Living In An Ecuadorian Prison

Names in this article have been omitted or changed

About three years ago, I set off from Melbourne on what was to become a trip around South America. Over the years working in hospitality, I´d made quite a few friends from Brazil and Colombia, and finally I was going to get a chance to visit them.

I spent my first few months visiting a friend in the States. In the first couple of weeks I went through a bit too much cash drinking and partying, and realised that if I wanted to fulfil my travel plans I´d need to get a job. Luckily, I soon met someone from a local burger place, and found out that they needed somebody to cook for them.

So for the following 6 weeks I worked, illegally, at the burger place. As I’ve been cooking professionally for a while I settled in okay, and had no trouble keeping up. I made some good friends, too – but I still had my ticket to a certain Colombian city*, and before long I set off.

I arrived in Colombia, found a cool hostel and settled in. After a few weeks of drinking, being a tourist and meeting friends and locals, I found inspiration. I heard that I would be able to rent a local shop space at 1 million Colombian pesos a month. As I’d been cooking professionally for 3-4 years, and involved in hospitality for close to 10, I’d had that dream of opening up my own place one day. When I realised that I could make this dream a reality for roughly 500 Australian dollars a month, I jumped at the chance.

There were a few other factors in my decision. I could see a gap in the market that I would be able to fill; I´d already made quite a few friends, and I was excited at the prospect of living there in the near future; and there was a healthy culture for techno and house music – I don´t think I could live in a city without my music scene.

So I changed my plans of being a traveller and threw all my savings into creating my own restaurant. Mind you, this was an undertaking I was ill-prepared for. I made almost no financial planning  for my business. But I knew I had a market cornered, and I could do good food.

So I signed on for the lease, and started constructing my dream. I gutted the place, renovated and installed a makeshift kitchen. There´s no way the place could resemble anything like what we see in Melbourne. But it was set up, and at least had a degree of functionality.

The first few months were a little rough, but after that it became a popular place in the area with expats, travellers and students. Nowhere else nearby even knew what a poached egg was, let alone being able to serve them with silky hollandaise sauce.

The restaurant started to build a community of ragtag locals, and I employed a few backpackers along the way who, along with their friends, formed part of the community. I assisted travellers on travel advice, where to party, what to check out in Bogota, and where to get the quality drugs. It became a fun place to have a drink with some sort-of-locals.

At closing time, around 5 or 6 pm, the drinks would always start, with whomever was around on that particular day. Most evenings I would be out drinking until 2 or 3, often ending the night where we began (in my restaurant) with drunk tourists. I would be back at the restaurant to open at 7am, or, on come occasions, would just sleep on egg cartons on the floor. It was a more than a little debaucherous.

As I was burning the candle at both ends, I´d often start the next day with a bit of a pick-me-up. If my nose was really blocked I´d just dump the blow in my coffee cup.

This was a special period of time, overall, and there were a lot of people during that stage that I was able to share the fun with.

Although I was burning out, things were still going pretty well 8 months down the track. At that point, out of 1000 restaurants in the city, I was ranked number 6 on Trip Advisor. Things were going steadily but I wasn’t making much profit, just staying above water. I choose not to reflect on how my appetite for partying affected the bottom line.

About 10 months after I opened, I hit a snag. I was told I had to start a new rental contract, and as I didn´t have a guarantor they were liable to hit me with a deposit of 6 million pesos ($3000 Australian). I didn´t have this or any money lying around, and I didn´t want to go around asking friends and family for it. And, honestly, I think I was tired: tired after trying for 10 months to run a business and party full-time.

So I gave up, and decided to close my restaurant. But the trouble didn´t end there.

I fixed up the place as best I could and arranged to stop paying rent. But the arsehole real estate guys (yes, turns out they exist everywhere) kept saying I had to fix or alter other tiny things, forcing me to pay several months more rent while they waited for another client.

On top of this, my flatmate didn´t pay his rent at our apartment. So I was up shit creek without a paddle. I hung out in the city a few months longer, doing odd jobs, selling sushi on the street, volunteering at hostels, and probably relying a little too heavily on friends.

At this point my family knew about my situation, and my mum bought me a ticket back to Australia. But I was sick of being poor, and wanted to finish my holiday in style. So when someone I knew offered me a paid trip to Argentina plus a good amount of money for when I came back, I accepted.

All was I had to do was take a cocaine-impregnated suitcase on a bus for five days across four borders. I was told it was anti dog, so I wouldn´t get sniffed out. It certainly didn´t resemble cocaine. The product was mixed into the plastic and foam of the case. I was told a friend recently did the same as I did and made it back to Australia too without any complications. I thought: “I´m not even catching a plane”. I honestly didn´t think I´d have a problem.

What I know now and learned soon thereafter was that I was ill-informed as to the risk involved. I didn´t know, for example, that this was a common drug-smuggling route for entrepreneurial Colombians fetching a higher price for their weed in Chile – so the Ecuadorian customs officers/’antinarcoticos’ are well prepared for finding drugs in all kinds of hiding places.

After crossing the border to Tulcan, Ecuador from Colombia, at Control Sur (an inspection road stop), my whole bus had to present their bags for inspection. Once one of the antinarcoticos stuck a knife in the foam of my suitcase and tasted it, I was arrested.

I never in my life imagined that I would do time in prison, let alone in Ecuador. I´ve now lived here roughly 15 months.

It isn´t so bad. Sure the conditions wouldn´t be anywhere near the standard of an Australian prison, but the drugs sure are more accessible and cheaper. A small bag of coke (0.3 gm) for $5 USD, or a joint of weed for $2 USD isn´t too expensive.

This prison is known in Ecuador as a ´colegio´ (high school) and the patio kind of resembles an old broken down high school in a way. There are a few reasons this place has such a rosy reputation. Firstly, we have access to the patio all day (8-5) while in some prisons in Ecuador they only have 2 hours outside a week. Also, the proportion of violent offenders is low: because it’s a border town the majority of offenders are drug smugglers. In fact 70 % of the prison population is Colombian and they are here for the same reason I am.

As I have been writing this there has been a lot of media attention on the case of the Australian woman caught at Bogota airport with 6 kilos. In discussing with other prisoners, I conclude that Bogota airport is probably the toughest airport to smuggle drugs through. It is famous for its scanners and facial recognition camera technology. They even have an airport show (Aeropuerta Alerta) dedicated to failed drug smugglers.

But I guess this young girl was unaware of the dangers involved. I won´t speculate as to whether she knew what she was doing or not, but she was certainly naïve to not open one of the 16 headphone packets that her ‘friend’ had bought for her.

I feel sorry for her, though, because she has made a large error of judgment following her capture. By protesting her innocence and starting a crowd-funding appeal, subsequently creating a media circus, she’s lost her chance of working with the system. What I mean by that is that there is a bit of corruption in Colombia, and with money there are ways of receiving a more lenient sentence. Now that her case is famous worldwide there is no possible way she will be able to fight her mandatory 8-year.

I have heard, through other prisoners, similar cases where someone has only done a year of prison and then another with a bracelet at home – a far cry from 8-12 years. Furthermore, why would anyone want to be famous for being a drug smuggler like her, the Bali 9 or Shapelle Corby?

I for one am much happier to fly under the radar. On that note, there will be some people (friends or family) who might recognise my story. If you do, please refrain from reposting and naming me, or showing older members of my family. I don´t want my mum to read this.

*I´d like to protect my identity, so I can´t say which one.

Words by Anonymous
Images: Patrick Monnier


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