18 Jul, 2011 | Matthew Grace
Life in Bolivia behind bars
On may 19, 2008, three young Norwegian women, Stina Brendemo Hagan, then 17 years old; Madeleine Rodriguez, then 20; and Christina Oygarden, then 18–along with Madeleine’s then 2-year-old daughter, Alicia–arrived at the Cochabamba airport to fly back to Norway after a three week holiday in Bolivia. None of them made their flight. Airport police found 22.5 kilograms of cocaine in the young women’s luggage. Instead of boarding an air plane for a long flight home, the young women found themselves facing up to 25 years in a Bolivian jail.
Madeleine and Stina live in the San Sebastian women’s prison in Cochabamba, a crumbling adobe structure facing a ramshackle park where young glue-sniffing kids sleep during the day. Inmates’ families line up in front of the prison gate every afternoon at 2, jostling in line, surrounded by plastic bags stuffed full of food and gifts to deliver to their loved ones. Shortly after 2:30pm, the steel door creaks open and the families shuffle into the prison.
It’s easy to find Stina and Madeleine in the prison’s courtyard, where visitors mingle with prisoners amid a constant clamor of activity. It is here that vendors sell lunches, sodas, and beauty products, and inmates line up to use payphones; a woman speaks visitors’ names into a microphone, announcing to prisoners that they have guests; laundry lines and electrical cables hang helter-skelter, crisscrossing under orange and blue tarps that shield the courtyard from fierce sun; raw meat dries next to laundry, in preparation for charquekan, a traditional Bolivian dish. Stina sticks out with her typically Scandinavian features—bright blond hair and pale white skin. She has curlicue bangs, coiffed just so, and the rest of her hair flows down her back and over her shoulders. Every day that we meet, she wears carefully applied makeup that accents her eyebrows and tints her cheeks. Madeleine, who has a Uruguayan father and a Norwegian mother, fits in a little better, although with her colorful clothes she’s much more fashionably dressed than the other women in the prison. She has a defined, thin face, and her curly dark brown hair is pulled back in a feisty ponytail set high on the back of her head. When I first visited them in 2008, shortly after their arrests, Stina haunted the edge of the mass of women in the prison courtyard. She seemed nervous, suspicious of my intentions, and she didn’t easily smile or speak to me. I found myself struggling to talk to her, and silence filled much of our conversations. Now, however, Stina locks eyes with me whenever I visit; she’s calmer and more assertive. It’s as if prison has made her grow up, made her more at ease with herself. And in a way it has: five months ago Stina gave birth to a baby boy. She’s also learned Spanish—and a bit of Quechua—in the past three years, and chats with the other inmates, who constantly approach her and ask to hold and play with her baby.
Madeleine, however, was always at ease. She has a confident demeanor, self-assured, almost cocky, which didn’t help her too much during her trial in 2009, when the prosecutors tried to portray her as the ringleader of an international drug ring. When I first met her, Madeleine was angry. She disobeyed the prison rules and found herself in solitary confinement several times after being caught with mobile phones—contraband in the eyes of the authorities. Now, however, she’s calmed down a bit, and even participates in prison life. She has a prison job—ironing laundry that’s dropped off by locals— and manages six other workers. She’s also quicker to smile when we sit at a plastic table in the courtyard and share a litre of soda while we talk.
Madeleine’s shock at being incarcerated has dulled, and while her separation from Alicia still saddens her, it’s gained a certain familiarity. Alicia stayed with her mother in prison for the first two weeks of imprisonment, after which her grandmother flew to Bolivia and brought her back to Norway. They now live in Lillestrom, a suburb 10 minutes outside of Oslo, where both Stina and Madeleine grew up. But Madeleine still dreams about her daughter all the time. “We used to drive around in my car”—a silver Golf Volkswagen—“and listen to R&B and hip-hop. We used to go fast! She’s still used to my driving, and when she rides with my mother now she always tells her to drive faster!”
Alicia, who’s now 5 years old, is also Stina’s niece. Madeleine and Stina have been good friends for nearly 10 years, and Madeleine had Alicia with Stina’s brother.
Both Madeleine and Stina have private rooms in the prison, which they were able to buy from the previous owners for about US$500 each. Madeleine’s room, which has a Norwegian flag hanging in front of the door, is decorated with dozens of pictures of Alicia. Other inmates, who aren’t from such relatively wealthy backgrounds, bunk six each to a room. When their husbands or boyfriends drop by, they must pay to rent out a room for conjugal visits.
Madeleine’s now engaged, to a 26-year-old Bolivian named Brian, who was introduced to her by a mutual friend on the outside. “He asked my friend if he knew any cute girls,” Madeleine says. Now Brian, who grew up in Virginia, visits her most days, bringing her lunch from the outside. “We’ve both had a lot of shit going on,” Madeleine says. (Brian served a two-year sentence in Cochabamba.) “One day we’ll be together [on the outside] with kids and jobs—we’ll have a life.” Both Stina and Madeleine say they had no idea they had the cocaine in their luggage on that day in 2008 at the airport, claiming they were set up. “I was calm when [the airport police] went through our luggage, because I didn’t know [the cocaine] was there.” Even when the cocaine was found, says Madeleine, she thought she’d be quickly released, “because it wasn’t mine.” Madeleine says the police were polite and professional, although the prosecutor threatened to take Alicia away and place her in an orphanage. Madeleine didn’t yet know that it’s customary for children to live with their mothers in Bolivian prisons. “My biggest concern was Alicia,” she says. Stina, Madeleine, and Christina spent two days in the airport police station, which was “disgusting,” they say; they weren’t allowed any phone calls for three days, although Madeleine was able to sneak off a text message to a friend after she realised they were in serious trouble and wouldn’t be making their flight home.
Finally, Stina was able to call home. “My mom was in shock,” she says. While the young women languished in jail, Stina’s mom grew depressed, couldn’t sleep, and lost weight. Her grandmother cried when Stina phoned her. “It was very hard to talk to her,” Stina says. Then, in February 2010, Christina, while out on bail, managed to obtain a copy of her passport (all three had to surrender their passports when they were arrested) and caught a plane to Norway. A small diplomatic crisis ensued, with the Bolivian government—and some vocal law-and-order types in Norway—demanding her return. The Norwegian government does not, however, have an extradition treaty with Bolivia.
But Stina and Madeleine were relieved that Christina wasn’t around any more. While they were in jail together, Christina started to blame Madeleine for their incarceration, and isolated herself from the others. “Whenever her family came to visit they wouldn’t even talk to us,” Madeleine tells me.
In April 2010, Madeleine and Stina were found guilty of attempted drug trafficking. They were both sentenced to 13 years and four months. Then, in November last year, they appealed their sentences; the court reduced both to 10 years and eight months. “For the first year and a half, everything was really against me,” says Madeleine. “But with the appeal, that was the first time in two years that I had good news.” And Madeleine will probably qualify for another reduction in her sentence, due to her work in the laundry. Ironically, the prosecutors originally wanted Madeleine to serve 10 years longer than Stina; now Madeleine will most likely be released first. I ask them how they cope with being locked up for so long, and what advice they’d give to other young women in their situation. “Go and shoot yourself,” Stina says before laughing. “No, I’m joking. Get visitors— don’t be alone! If you’re alone you’re going to go crazy.” But she also cautions not to trust anyone on the inside. “When you are sad or when you are down, you can’t trust anyone to keep a secret.” Madeleine says that she’s learned to be patient, and that “in every situation there’s something good. I’ve got another point of view in life. I’ve learned how people live in poor countries.” And she takes a philosophical view to get her through the seemingly endless days ahead in the same place: “In the end, everything is OK. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
For now, though, both Stina and Madeleine while away their days in the San Sebastian prison. Madeleine works from 7am to noon every day, and evenings when there’s extra work. They watch DVDs in Stina’s room at night, and voraciously read books that visitors—including people from the Norwegian consulate in La Paz and the small Norwegian community in Cochabamba—bring them. In the end, though, both Madeleine and Stina struggle to cope with being in jail. Or, as Madeleine puts it, “It’s not about being in jail, it’s about being alone. The more time you have, the more alone you feel.” Sometimes, Stina says, she dreams about being home. “I dream about freedom, in Norway, and about my grandma and Alicia, my niece.” But that happiness is elusive upon waking. “It’s still tough, every day. I’m never really happy. There’s always the fact of being in jail.”
Both Madeleine and Stina would welcome any travelers who might want to visit them.