Forget about going to South America, on holiday or for business.
So says former metro policeman Ed Thompson, who flew home this week after nearly four years in Peruvian prisons for cocaine trafficking.
The Durban man vehemently denies having committed the crime and claims to have been framed before being thrown to the wolves on a strange continent where “all they are interested in is getting money out of you and putting you in jail”.
“There’s no law there and they presume we (foreigners) are all there for the drugs. There’s a good chance of somebody using you for drugs while you’re there. It’s so set up. Whether you’re there on holiday or business, you’ll be used in some way.”
Thompson, 45, said he had been working as a bodyguard in early 2016 and was sent to Ecuador to meet a client, who never showed up. So, he headed home, passing through Lima, Peru’s capital, in transit.
There, authorities apprehended him with a bag he said he had never seen before, filled with clothes too small to fit him, and with a hand-written baggage tag bearing his name and flight number. Also inside was cocaine.
Thompson said he was instantly issued a visa to enter Peru, then sent “somewhere in Lima, in handcuffs, leg irons and shackles” before appearing in court where, with no diplomatic assistance, he was asked three questions that were not translated by an interpreter.
His sentence: six years and eight months with the option of parole.
“A lawyer advised me to co-operate and get six years or, if I could not prove my innocence, get 15 years and have to serve the full sentence,” he said.
In prison, everything from drinking water to buckets for washing, toothpaste and toilet paper, came at a price. A consultation with a doctor would lead to a prescription for medication that the prisoner would have to source from outside and pay for at an inflated price. Safety, too, which was offered by the few prisoners who spoke some English, was an opportunity to exploit new foreign inmates whom they saw as a source of dollars.
But a bitter memory Thompson brought back with him is of “a lying, thieving piece of sh** called Roland” – a Hollander employed as a “consultant” by the South African Embassy who dealt with him and his father back in Durban.
“My requests for help were just fobbed off. He claimed money my family sent him to buy me stuff was given to ‘some lawyer’.” However, he received money sent through other channels by family and friends back home who mobilised social media on his behalf.
Things turned better three-and-a-half years into his incarceration with the arrival of Elsie Dipuo Tlali at the South African embassy. He believes she took public transport to visit him at a remote prison where he had been banished. She also brought him supplies.
“I believe she paid for everything herself. The embassy had always said it had no budget for visiting prisoners.”
He understands that “Roland” has moved on.
On any ordinary day, Thompson had to fight off fellow inmates wanting to stab him or steal from him.
“Drugs were rife,” he said, especially the smoking of crack cocaine. Addicts would steal “clothes, blankets, mattresses, anything” to sell to pay for their drugs.
“I would wake up in the mornings with a headache from all the drug-smoking around me.”
He said he became aware of prisoners running drug businesses from within prison walls, who colluded with police and airport officials to bust earmarked drug mules to enable others with larger consignments to get through.
“They would never be interested in offers by prisoners to be shown who had sent them to carry drugs.”
Thompson said he was in cells built for eight people that housed about 26 inmates. After picking up Spanish, he eventually ended up in a less crowded cell with a British prisoner who had been guaranteed access to a translator.
“There were no prison translators so I had to do it (translate Spanish).”
Thompson said he knew no Spanish on arrival in Peru and took three to four months to learn the basics. However, his becoming fluent – and the presence of Tlali – helped him at his recent release hearing, held a year behind schedule.
“I wasn’t expecting to be released. They had lied every step of the way. When it was positive, I was a bit shocked. I thought it would be just another run-around session.”
Back home, his stomach is not used to the milk in coffee. He also said he could not manage to eat egg and bacon, and home-cooked curries and stews he and his fellow inmates fantasised about. Not after three years and 10 months of rice, buns, no vegetables and occasionally chicken.
“But I manage peanut butter sandwiches. They are what I always enjoyed in my lunch pack at school.”
He hopes to rebuild his life, but will have to start from scratch – including obtaining an ID book and completing other official paperwork.