At age 20, Raquel Marinero Hércules has already been very close to hell. On September 4, 2011 she was three and a half months pregnant. At Juan Santamaría airport in San José, Costa Rica, on a stopover from Panama on her way back to Spain, she started to vomit profusely. Besides a baby daughter, Raquel's belly also contained 55 balls of cocaine - nearly a kilogram of the narcotic.
Fearing for her unborn child's life, she turned herself over to the police and confessed. After her arrest, she spent 17 days in a hospital, unable to eat a thing until the drug exited her body. Raquel was sentenced to a five-year prison term. After four months behind bars, on January 19, 2012 she gave birth prematurely to Mía. Now, her family is fighting tooth and nail to get both of them back to Spain.
Raquel was promised 8,000 euros for working as a drug mule and was told that she would not have to go through the body scan at customs on account of her pregnancy, explains her mother Cristina during a telephone conversation from Cartagena. "Raquel left home at age 18. She was working as a hairdresser in Madrid and met some Dominican friends who got her involved in this shit."
In April of last year, the young prisoner told the Costa Rica daily Diario Extra that she started trafficking drugs when she became pregnant at 19. "I would strap four kilos of cocaine to my body and travel on the AVE [high-speed train]. I went to a hotel and the narcs had it ready for me. When I strapped it on with a Colombian corset, you couldn't tell it was there." She also confessed to transporting over 100,000 euros in drug money. "But money is easy come, easy go."
I went to a hotel and the narcs had it ready for me. When I strapped it on with a Colombian corset, you couldn't tell it was there"
Besides Raquel Marinero, another 2,453 Spanish prisoners are serving sentences in foreign penitentiaries, according to up-to-date Foreign Ministry figures. Of these, 83 percent were involved in drug use or trafficking. More than half are in Latin America, while 33 percent are in Europe and eight percent in Africa. The remaining four percent are split between North America and Asia, home to some of the world's most dangerous prisons.
"The consul told me not to complain, because my daughter could have ended up in Colombia or Peru," says Cristina. "Raquel is lucky, relatively speaking, because she is in a women's wing where there are lots of other children, at Buen Pastor penitentiary in San José."
The four months she spent in a common prison were horrible, says her mother. "They are all packed together, they sleep on the floor because there are no mattresses, and the prison is full of drugs. There are lots of controls to prevent someone bringing in a file, but razorblades and drugs flow freely."
Peru is the country with the largest Spanish prisoner population; 276 individuals. There are also more than 200 in Colombia, Brazil and Italy. After that, statistics show a sprinkling of inmates in Thailand, Mali and Honduras, among other countries.
The consul told me not to complain, because my daughter could have ended up in Colombia or Peru"
In Venezuela, where there are 55 Spaniards serving prison sentences, non-profit groups and relatives have reported beatings, torture and constant extortion. In 2011, 560 prisoners died and over 1,000 were injured, according to the Venezuelan Prison Observatory. "Human rights are being constantly violated there. Inside jail, the prisoners make the law. That kind of treatment has nothing to do with the sentence or the crime. They must be brought back," says lawyer Cristina Ogazón.
But returning to Spain is the longest and cruelest battle of all for those doing time abroad. Spaniards with a definitive court sentence and who are going to spend at least six months in jail can apply for a transfer, which depends on consent from both Spain and the country where the applicant was sentenced.
According to the non-profit group Movimiento por la Paz (Movement for Peace), which provides assistance to prisoners' relatives, administrative red tape can take a year and a half to cut through. But Ogazón raises that estimate to 24 and even up to 30 months. "Besides, once both countries give the green light, it can still take an additional year before the actual return. In the case of Ángel Carromero [the leader of the Popular Party's youth wing, who was sent to jail in Cuba after being involved in a traffic accident resulting in the death of two Cuban dissidents] the transfer to Spain, once both countries were in agreement, took 15 days. The Spanish government worked very efficiently and speedily on this case, but it forgot about all the other prisoners."
Through its consulates, Spain grants financial aid to "needy" cases. The aid is 120 euros a month at the most, and most families send their relatives an additional amount. "The consulate in Costa Rica gives my daughter 20 euros," says Cristina. "But they deduct her stamp expenses. I try to send her 100 to 150 euros each month. I'm unemployed and I can't afford to send more."
In the case of Ángel Carromero the transfer to Spain, once both countries were in agreement, took 15 days"
Once a month she also sends care packages filled with food, diapers and foodstuff for the baby. "I do it through people I met when I traveled to Costa Rica," she explains.
Ogazón, however, staunchly defends the job of Spain's consulates. "The work carried out by the consulate in Venezuela is worthy of praise," she says. "They regularly visit the inmates; they even go inside, risking their own necks. Given the conditions in those prisons, there is no guarantee that they will be able to walk out again unscathed. Just to give you an example, the lock on many cells is kept by the inmates, not the wardens."
The money the Spaniards receive is often the reason for the extortion they undergo. "In Costa Rica they think that because you're Spanish, you've got dough," says Raquel's mother. And in Venezuela, "if Spaniards want to stay alive, they have to pay the "causa" [a revolutionary tax of sorts]," reports Ogazón. A mattress to sleep on costs money. Medicines cost money. Food costs money. Life itself costs money.
The story of the prisoners is also the story of their families, a story of anguish and of fear and of spending each day waiting for a letter or a phone call confirming that a loved one is still alive and, just perhaps, closer to returning home.
"The entire week revolves around Friday, when we talk for two minutes on the phone," says Cristina, stuttering out of anxiety. "My daughter requires psychological treatment and she cannot get it there. To the prison, to the embassy, to everybody, Raquel is a problem they've been saddled with. My grand-daughter Mía turned one this past Saturday. I could bring her over, of course, but she is my daughter's salvation."
Cristina ends with the plea that is most commonly heard from the relatives of Spanish prisoners abroad. "I have never asked for Raquel's release. I want her to serve her sentence in Spain and to watch my grand-daughter grow up. That's all. Is justice the same for everybody?"