“I spent nearly a week in a Panama prison,” Tim told me. He was dressed like Hansel (from Hansel and Gretel – did I mention it was Halloween?) and as a clean-cut guy from a small town in Australia, he looked like the least likely character to be doing time anywhere, let alone in Central America.
Having once been addicted to the hit US show Prison Break, my eyes peeled back as visions of Sona (the hell hole of a prison depicted in the TV show) flashed before my eyes. While Sona was fictional, it was inspired by a prison that actually did once exist in Latin America.
I looked over at Tim: this guy had not only been in a Panama prison, he’d survived? I needed to know the full story…and then the craziness of Halloween in the USA took over, we went in separate directions the next day (as commonly happens on the road) and I never got to the end.
However, finally, almost a year later, I’ve got the rest of the tale and Tim has kindly agreed to let me share it with you.
I’m sure you’ll agree that this story is quite extraordinary and I’ll be totally honest and say that I’m grateful it’s not my story. But, it is the kind of story could happen to any backpacker in Panama, so take heed.
Here’s Tim’s story.
Banged-Up in a Panama Prison
“Fresh meat!” “Fresh meat!” “Gringo!” “Gringo!” I hear as I am pushed towards a door with only eyes and arms popping through. Behind the door stand a sea of shirtless Latin American men jeering and rattling the locked door. The Panamanian Immigration official pushes me and an 18-year-old Columbian illegal through the door and into the mob of jeers and locks the door behind us. My backpack and I are swept by the swarm of men through graffitied walls into a laundry room where I am surrounded by four Latino men screaming in Spanish, pushing me, egged on by over 30 onlookers. My backpack is ripped from me; the Columbian is thrown towards and pinned against a washing machine. Is this how it goes I thought? I am about to be bashed, raped or worse? How did my trip land me here? I was meant to be lapping up the sun in San Blas islands!
Central America was the promised land after 2 years working and travelling in the UK and Europe. Travelling solo it had so far been the trip of a lifetime exploring the volcanoes, snorkelling in the Caribbean sea and staring out at pacific sunsets.
The Panama/Costa Rican land border on the Caribbean side seemed innocuous enough. There was a chicken shop next to the immigration building on the Costa Rican side and then a rickety, unkempt bridge across to Panama. Typical Central America really. On the Panamanian side I was guided into a shack where a man inspected my passport and asked for the $3 USD tourist tax in exchange for which he placed a sticker in my passport next to the Costa Rican stamp.
“Estampe?” I enquired
“No,” he replied and pointed to the door.
With that Panama was my oyster. Except it wasn’t. What I had failed to do was go down the hill to the left and get the actual stamp that entitled me to legal entry into Panama.
I discovered my error a mere 20 days later in Panama City (14 hours by bus from the border). I attempted to sort the situation at the Panama City Immigration office to no avail despite a 6 hour wait – my smartphone Spanish translator just wasn’t up to the task.
Unable to return to the border because I was scheduled to sail to Colombia via the idyllic white sands in the San Blas islands, I thought I’d risk it. I had the sticker and I thought I could explain on exit what had happened. It was an innocent mistake. I had heard similar things in Guatemala where a small fine sufficed. Not Panama however…
So here I am in Panama City’s Immigration detention centre about to have my head pummeled in by a broomstick handle. A supposedly educated 26-year-old. I have made quite the blue here. When I was stopped at the province checkpoint, I was told that all I must do is return to Panama City and settle the fine. Detention was never mentioned, even in Spanish. I’ll be in a hostel by 5 p.m. I naively thought.
I began to think I was in some trouble when all of my technology and cash was confiscated (bar $14, for food they said) and I was taken to a local hospital for a brief medical exam. Even after a thorough bag search I assumed I was hours away from release. ‘No Soy Criminal!’ Well actually I was. I had entered the country illegally – stupidly, accidentally, but illegally none the less by the letter of the law. And as I was about to learn, due to Panama’s growing economic prosperity compared to neighbouring Latin American neighbours, it is an attractive destination for illegals seeking work.
Back in the laundry room suddenly an African gigantor emerges from the howling pack. “No harm,” “no fear,” he reassures my wide-eyed deer-in-the-headlights expression. My backpack is returned to the rapturous laughter of the pack crammed into the laundry room. Welcome!
I was later told the newbie hazing is a daily occurrence. Something to stave off the boredom (I once saw a guard follow and film some of it on his phone while laughing). While the joke was on me it did take me a good couple of hours for my heart rate to resume normal rhythm but I quickly became a semi-celebrity – a gringo (one of two), an Australian!
“Why are you here?” “Why would an Australian want to work in Panama?” I explain my predicament with mixed responses. A couple of days to a month are the estimates. Not great given the conditions. I am quickly bought up to speed on the lay of the land by a Colombian man who spoke some English. I was advised to wear thongs all the time; the floor is dirty, especially in the bathroom. There were no beds at the moment but hopefully in the evening something would open up.
There were about 100 men in the facility spread between 6 rooms. Most sleep on thin mattresses on the floor, a lucky few on portable beds. There are 3 barely working toilets and 3 cold showers. Meals are served 3 times a day, an unappealing serving of dry meat with even drier rice and a plantain.
“You wanna smoke, gringo?”, my Colombian pal enquires. “$1”. I decline. “You wanna make a call?” “$1” (I don’t think he was taking into account I would probably be calling Australia when he made that offer). I consider this. The embassy was unlikely to be much assistance given I had done the wrong thing. The only thing they could potentially provide was an interpreter. Not worth pissing off the Panamanian officials I figure. My family? Apart from trying to avoid worrying them, I had told them I would be uncontactable on the boat to Colombia for 5 days so that bought me some time. Ironically my dad was getting a local cricket oval named after him that weekend. Our headspaces could not have been further apart. My mate I was meeting in Colombia? That still wasn’t for another 5 days and I could always Facebook him for the $2 for 20 minutes from the bloke who smuggled his phone in with internet. I would just sit tight for the time being and see how the situation played out.
Within 24 hours I had learnt the ropes. “Agua” is the call if a guard walking the grates overhead passes by – it’s an alert to fellow prisoners to hide their contraband (phones and cigarettes mainly). I had lost all my money (bar $14) and technology during the searches – I hadn’t been through this before like many of my counterparts, who were a bit more savvy to the process. The majority were from Colombian with a spattering of natives from other Central and South American countries; most coming for work and the better economic prospects than their homelands. Others have nowhere to go. No others are stupid enough to be in prison because they just have a sticker and not a stamp in their passport.
I quickly befriend a Pakistani man, mainly due to a shared love of cricket and the ability to speak English. He explains that he is seeking asylum in Canada as another family is trying to persecute the males in his family in his homeland. He has a wife and 3 children, one of whom he has never met. He has already been pillaged of all his money in Colombia by the corrupt police. He entered Panama on foot via the dangerous Darien region. He was at another camp before being here and they weren’t fed, this is luxury he says. He was interesting to speak to, noting the differences between western and Muslim cultures. What else is there to do?
The days drag and the facility is oppressively hot. Only an aluminum tin roof separates us from the sun. Industrial fans blow to no avail. The only relief to the monotony is the 40 minutes of yard time where a lively soccer game takes place. The rest of the time is filled with dozing, reading and teaching English to some enthusiastic young Colombians (I feel like Andy Dufrense from Shawshank Redemption here!).
The thing I found most marked about the environment was the friendliness and camaraderie between detainees. A Colombian told me early on to “relax, this place will eat you alive with worry otherwise, enjoy.” No one has a bad word to say to each other and everyone is concerned about your plight. I only ever saw heated words exchanged once and then it was quickly dissipated by other detainees. We were lucky I was told by others. This was safe compared to other detention centres in Central America.
To the Panamanian’s credit this is not a long-term facility, most people seem to be turned around in a week or so. However, there were some Chinese men who had been there over 4 months. So the waiting game began.
The Waiting Game…
Fortunately on day 2 I was summoned along with about 6 others who’d been detained the previous day. I was handed a statement to sign. It was entirely in Spanish. Not great. I explain that I don’t understand and won’t sign something I don’t comprehend. A fellow detainee translates for me. First they say you are facing deportation back to Australia, which is going to involve a long wait given the expense. The second option is to pay a $1000 fine and leave Panama within 10 days of release (I wish they had said that first!).
I say I am willing to pay the fine but will need to be taken to an ATM. They had confiscated a large amount of cash from me when I was arrested as I needed to pay cash for the boat to Columbia. But I would still need more. They asked if I had anyone I knew in Panama to help me. I shook my head. I signed the document and headed back to locked gate with no mention on how things would actually proceed from here on in.
The next 24 hours progressed without any real progress. Health-wise, however, I was deteriorating. I couldn’t stomach the food, I had a perpetual headache and I was generally unwell. This made me even more desperate to leave!
Late that afternoon the head of detention entered the facility to talk to some of the detainees (he was quite the man of the people!). He could not speak English but with the help of one of my Colombian friends I managed to explain my plight, that I was willing to pay the fine I just needed someone to take me the ATM. He said he would look into it for me.
The next morning I was summoned again to his office where I explained my situation once more with an immigration official acting as translator. The sticking point appeared to be that I had no one on the outside to act as a guarantor that I would leave the country. I was told later that morning that they needed to go farther up the chain of command for approval, and that could take a couple of days. My heart sank. It was Friday, and the prospect of the weekend was heartbreaking at this point. The rollercoaster of emotions continued as a few hours later I was told they would take me to the ATM to get the money I needed. This proved not exactly a straight forward prospect as I wasn’t sure if all or any of the money that had been confiscated would be returned to me (it is Central America after all).
I was handcuffed and taken to the ATM at lunchtime. I was asked if I would like some lunch as I would be missing it at the facility, on the proviso that I would buy each of the guards a coke. I, in my state of delirious hunger, wholeheartedly agreed. After withdrawing the money from the ATM (I ended up assuming I would be given my money back, but took out a little extra). I was then asked for the money, to which I handed over a $20 USD. Some words in Spanish were exchanged. I assumed they thought they would struggle to get change from a $20 so I handed over another $10, requesting the $20 back. The guards just laughed. I wasn’t getting any lunch from them. $30 lighter I returned to the facility to the remaining dry rice. I was told by the guards not to say anything about what had just taken place. At this stage I wasn’t willing to jeopardise my chance of freedom over $30.
They did however send me back to my imprisonment with a newly acquired load of money. Despite the friendliness Id experienced so far I couldn’t risk telling others that I’d been taken to the ATM. These were still desperate people and also extremely poor. So I told them I was about to go, but they changed their mind and I would go later. And then I had a spoonful of dry rice…
Hours later I was summoned again to finally head to the exact immigration office I had already spent six hours in the week before. After a repeated interrogation from my van driver about how much money I had in my bank account (cue me using my handcuffed hands to hiding my bank cards in my shoe to avoid another fleecing) I arrived and paid my fine. Here I met two German girls that had done the exactly same as me at the same border crossing. They were alerted to their error at the airport and were merely made to go back to the immigration office (unescorted!) and pay the fine without detention. To say I was exasperated by this is an understatement.
Within a few hours I was a free man. Of course they dropped us off in the dodgiest part of Panama city at night with no directions, but I was free none the less. I gave my newly acquired Pakistani friends $50 each to get them on their way, as they had no means until they could contact their families. My nightmare was finally over.
On reflection I met some friendly locals, experienced a new way of living and I had one heck of a story to take back home with me.
I suppose that’s why we travel.
I’m sure you’ll agree that’s quite the experience and the story. I don’t know that I’d have been quite so brave if I’d have been sent to prison while I was in Panama. I’d have probably rushed back to England and never left the country again. If nothing else, it’s a good lesson for us all – check the immigration procedures for every country you visit. And stick to them!
Tim isn’t a travel blogger but you can follow his travels on Instagram (hopefully there won’t be an ‘my return to a Panama Prison’ shots featuring on his account soon…ever).
Have you had a similar experience or incident while you’ve been travelling? Let me know in the comments below.
Main image: norue
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