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Busted in Nicaragua: A Drug Charge, Jail, and a Narrow Escape From Hell

by Ben Phillips Sep 17, 2009

This article was originally published in a different magazine under a different name.

What do you do when you find yourself in a Latin American jail cell on a drug charge?

The first thing I noticed about my cell was the stench. It smelled like someone shit in a pan, then pissed in that pan, then cooked that pan on a hot stove. I gagged as the jailer slammed the solid steel door and slid the bolt into place.

“Un momento!” I cried out. “Donde está la luz?” He laughed lightly. “No hay.” Then he was gone.

I found a lighter in my pocket (their search was less than thorough) and examined my cell. I was standing in a quarter-inch of water, overflowing from a hole in the corner. That hole was supposed to be the toilet.

The cell was the size of a standard office cubicle and designed to hold four prisoners, with four concrete slabs protruding from the walls. Rats, big motherfuckers, started to squeeze under the door to investigate. I climbed onto one of the high bunks, away from the rats and the fetid water, praying to God that there would not be any more surprises. There was a small window near the bunk, but no moon.

Never had I imagined that I was going to end up in a third world jail. I’d never even been to a first world jail, and this isn’t the kind of thing a person should plunge into headfirst. You should be able to warm up to it—maybe with a disorderly conduct charge and a night in the drunk-tank back in Seattle, for practice.

But I was a science geek. My time in a research laboratory, staring at bacteria all day, did nothing to prepare me for the isolation and squalor of a Central American prison.

The story began six months earlier, on April 12th, 2007. That morning I received a phone call informing me that I had been awarded a prestigious travel fellowship. A U.S. university was going to pay me to travel for eight months, by myself, in two different regions of the world.

The farthest I had ever traveled before was a quick jaunt over the Mexican border for cheap tequila. All my friends were jealous.

Three months later, I flew into Cancun and hopped on a bus heading for Guatemala. The first few days were filled with apprehension and horror: I had no fucking clue what I was doing. For example: I paid an “exit tax” to a border official when I left Mexico, only to be informed by a fellow traveler some days later that Mexico doesn’t have an exit tax—which made sense, since I had watched the border guard tuck my 200 pesos ($20) into his overstuffed wallet.

I learned as I went, riding buses through Guatemala and hitchhiking across Honduras, studying Spanish and climbing mountains. I whiled away long days lounging in hammocks, reading books about Central American political history. I basked in the sun on white sand beaches, smoked joints, and went diving in the warm waters of the Caribbean.

Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere, an ideal place to study Spanish if you’re trying to stretch your money as far as it will go. I arrived in Granada anxious to start a new round of Spanish classes.

The locals seemed proud of their city: Granada represents a modern Nicaragua, where $200-a-night hotels, Irish pubs, and high-end tourists line the ancient stone streets. To me, Granada represented just another tourist attraction. This was not what I expected.

The euphoric cloud I had been riding during my first two months was evaporating, and I was beginning to feel homesick. I spent the week in a state of melancholy, half-heartedly studying Spanish, anxiously waiting to finish my classes so I could get out of the city.

I was desperate to recapture a bit of the adventure that had fueled my first two months on the road. I was about to get more of it than I wanted.

On the morning of my arrest, I woke up in a funk. (I’d lost one of my three pairs of fancy travel underwear—one-third of my total underwear collection at that point.) Things started to look up when I arrived at school and my Spanish teacher, Omar, asked me if I wanted him to buy some pot for us to smoke that night.

I have been a more than casual smoker since I was 14, and decided before the trip even started that—despite the penalties—I wasn’t going to quit smoking. I enthusiastically handed over 100 Cordobas (about five dollars) and agreed to meet him in Parque Central later that night.

We met as planned and started walking down Granada’s cobbled streets towards my hostel. As we walked, Omar pulled a small plastic baggie containing about two grams of pot from his pocket and handed it to me for inspection. I quickly glanced at the bag and slipped it into my pocket as we continued on.

I was in a better mood than I had been for days when a voice yelled “parese!” (“stop!”). I turned and saw an obese cop precariously perched on the handlebars of a bicycle, peddled by an old Nicaraguan man struggling to keep the bike upright. Awkwardly dismounting from the handlebars, the cop rushed over to us. Omar said “fuck” (in English), and we were up against the wall.

After searching Omar, the cop turned to me. He quickly found the bag and said: “You are in big trouble.” This must have been one of the only English phrases he knew because he kept repeating it over and over again. That and “take it easy” any time I tried to speak to him.

The gentleman on the bicycle had ridden past us a few minutes before. I remembered him staring, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. He had probably seen Omar hand me the bag and, thinking he might extract some money from the situation, found the first policeman he could. I offered to pay a “fine.” The fat cop refused. I offered again. He refused again, handcuffed me, and took me to jail.

We stopped at my guesthouse on the way so I could retrieve my belongings. At the jail, I was ordered to remove all my valuables from my bag so that they could be entered into the evidence log. I had been planning on leaving the next day to hitchhike the east coast of Nicaragua and went to an ATM to take out the cash I would need for two weeks. When all was said and done I had over $900.

Throw in an iPod, a camera, and a watch and there was well over $1,200 in cash and electronics sitting on the counter. It is profoundly uncomfortable to watch someone count out your traveling money, probably over half his annual salary, knowing that he thinks you are a stupid, ignorant, rich American who is about to get exactly what he deserves—which you kind of are.

I lay on my concrete slab for hours, while countless questions raced through my head: When was I going to be released? Would I be able to call my embassy? How long before my parents or my girlfriend started to worry? How long could they keep me here?

I finally willed myself into a fitful sleep. I awoke frequently, once completely confused about where I was. When the reality of the situation hit me, I curled up in a ball on my concrete pad and cried.

Around mid-morning, a female jailer came on duty. She taunted me in Spanish and laughed when I tried to ask questions. She instructed the prisoner in charge of handing out food to give me none, and refused to let me use another cell to go to the bathroom.

That afternoon, I was moved from my soiled cell into a clean(er) one with two other prisoners. My cellmates were very kind to me. When I told them that I had not been given any food, they produced a couple of small bananas and a cup of instant milk.

We spent the afternoon trying to chat. During our halting conversation, I learned that one had tried to kill his wife in a drunken rage, and that the other was an accomplice to the murder of an American woman during a botched robbery three months earlier.

I didn’t really formulate my escape plan—I just started it and realized I would have to keep going no matter what. I began clutching my chest and complaining about the size of the room, then pacing quickly and working myself into a panic. I told my cellmates that I needed medicine for my heart and asked them to call the jailer.

She looked in on us, slammed the door shut, and began walking away when my cellmates came to my rescue. They shouted at her to come back, and soon prisoners in other cells began shouting, too. Five minutes later, she returned with her boss who escorted me down to an office. He screamed furiously at me while I stood, feigning chest pain and asking to see a doctor.

Luckily, they did not want to take the chance that some American kid might actually keel over and die in their jail. Can you imagine the paperwork associated with that sort of fuckup?

Two hours later my travel-angel arrived. Inspector Amaru was one cool guy. He was like the detective you see on TV who drives a car that is way out of his pay grade, sleeps with gorgeous female officers, and busts the really bad motherfuckers without breaking a sweat. He also spoke fluent English.

He led me to the cafeteria and offered me a cigarette and a plate of gallo pinto. After I wolfed down my meal and sucked my cigarette down to its filter, he explained that he was going to take a statement. If he believed me, he would try to help me. If he thought I was lying, that was the end of our time together. Obviously, I spilled my guts.

As he had promised, Amaru went out of his way to help me. He called the police commissioner at home and convinced him to let me out due to my “medical condition.” I was released—my passport and belongings were not—and instructed to return Monday morning, at which time I would sign a formal statement and meet with the commissioner.

On Monday morning, I went to the police station filled with nervous anticipation. I spent the first hour giving a formal statement, with Amaru translating and an officer taking dictation on a decrepit typewriter that looked like it had seen action in the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Then I was led into the commissioner’s office. Again, Amaru translated as the commissioner said he could not waive the charges against me because they were drug-related. “If you had robbed someone or beaten someone up this would not be a problem, but this is out of my hands,” he said. There needs to be a trial.”

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. Leaving the police station, I felt like I was about to have a complete breakdown. Amaru calmed me down and told me a friend of his was a good lawyer and that we would see her immediately.

I had expected an office building, but we pulled up in front of a bar. My lawyer was sitting at the bar, drinking a beer and chatting with some friends. She came over and talked quickly with Amaru but not with me. I started freaking out again. “Don’t worry,” Amaru assured me casually. “We’ll meet her at the courthouse tomorrow morning and we’ll see the judge then. You want some lunch?”

On Tuesday morning, Amaru picked me up and I rode to court on the back of his motorbike in a complete downpour. We were soaking wet and dripped on the floor throughout the pre-trial hearing. A trial date was set for that Friday and I was released on my own recognizance, meaning I could get my passport and belongings. I paid my lawyer via Amaru and he drove me back to my hostel. When we arrived, he handed me my passport and said solemnly: “I would be out of the country by Friday if I was you.”

We shook hands and I just stood there repeating “gracias” over and over until he pried his hand away. He gave me a small grin and hopped on his bike, never asking for anything in return for all the help he had given me.

The following morning, I slipped out of my hostel before dawn and boarded a southbound bus. Three hours and three buses later, I was at the Costa Rican border. Somehow, I managed to walk through Immigration without freaking out. I was in Costa Rica.

I hitchhiked south. By nightfall, I had arrived on the Pacific coast in a small surf town called Samara Beach. After checking into a guesthouse I took a long walk, basking in the fading sunlight and enjoying the fresh coastal air. I passed a young Costa Rican surfer sitting on the beach lighting a joint. “lo quieres?” (“Want some?”) he asked grinning. “Hay policia aquí?” I asked, smiling slightly.

“Soy un policia!” he laughed. He handed me the joint. We sat chatting amicably and leaning back on the sand, watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. It felt good to be free.

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