How a convicted drug smuggler survives a foreign jail in the shadow of Schapelle Corby
A young Australian woman with HIV is quietly serving out a jail sentence for cocaine smuggling in Lima, Peru, without the media frenzy that has surrounded her more prominent compatriot.
She’s a young Australian woman who has been held in a foreign jail for years after a drug smuggling conviction. But she is not the woman you’re thinking of.
Bronwyn Atherton has been in jail in Lima, Peru, since 2008 – when she was caught trying to smuggle a suitcase containing 18 kilograms of cocaine onto a flight to Paris.
Unlike her infamous compatriot Schapelle Corby, however, Atherton’s story is largely unknown to her fellow Australians.
When I visit her at the Santa Monica prison in the suburb of Chorrillos in Lima, she seems completely lacking in bitterness.
Outside a cafe in the jail’s visiting area – which has trees and stalls selling stuffed toys and half decent food – she explains how a 28-year-old woman from Cowra in the NSW central west wound up here.
Atherton says her downward spiral began early. She was sexually abused as a child and ran away from home at 16. A year later, she became pregnant and later gave birth to a baby boy. Three years later, her son Shamaya died of a constricted bowel.
”It was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. I just couldn’t believe I lost my beautiful baby son,” she says sobbing.
Soon afterwards she was raped, in what would be the first of three times.
”I decided to leave Australia after the first rape and went to travel around Africa, namely Mozambique and South Africa. It was there that I found out the person who raped me gave me HIV. It all happened within a year of my baby dying.”
She fell into the orbit of a Nigerian drug gang through an apparently benign encounter, but the worst was still to come.
”I was in a cafe in Pretoria and ordered lunch, even though I had no means to pay for it,” Atherton says. ”I was starving, and then this guy came up to me and paid for my food. Afterwards I met his friends.”
This meeting led to travels with the gang and a further two rapes, before she wound up in Peru.
”It took six months from my first meetings with the guys in South Africa to finally getting the cocaine to smuggle out of Peru … So much happened including having a gun held to my head.”
On hearing her story, some might be inclined to feel sorry for a woman who was clearly preyed on by the gang because of her naivety and poor fortune. ”It was still my fault though,” Atherton says. ”I did agree to take the drugs from South America to Europe.”
Had she landed safely at Charles de Gaulle, she would have received $23,000. ”That said, I was only meant to be bringing nine kilograms of cocaine and not 18 kilograms,” a fact that would have meant her sentence should have been half as long.
Brad Barker, president of the San Diego security firm HALO Corporation, is an expert on organised crime gangs, kidnappings, coercions and mules. ”From my experience mules are victims,” he says. ”They get tipped psychologically, which also makes them reliable.”
And someone like Atherton is a safe bet.
”She’s white, she’s blonde, she’s pretty and she’s the furthest thing from the kind of person you would expect to smuggle drugs,” Barker says. ”It’s very easy to flip someone, by way of threat or reward. The cartels who run these operations are more powerful, have more access to information and are more sophisticated than a female traveller in a foreign land.
”There is nothing as insecure as a girl in a country that’s not her home. An imposing man will have no problems convincing her into becoming an asset.”
Drug mules are offered pittances, compared with what they generate for the kingpins. A kilogram of cocaine can be bought in Peru for about $5000 and sold on the streets of Sydney for more than $400,000. Even if a few kilos go astray and some mules get locked up from time to time, it’s not a big loss in the multibillion-dollar game.
The issue of drug mules has received attention in recent months with the high-profile arrest of Irish woman Michaella McCollum Connolly and Scottish woman Melissa Reid, who were caught at Lima’s airport with 11 kilograms of cocaine. The attention can be both good and bad for Atherton.
”I feel very sorry for the girls,” she says. ”The government will be making an example of them but their case has highlighted the whole dirty business. Because of them, I have had more interest from people on my Facebook and websites, so it’s good for donations, which I desperately need.
”Everything here costs money, toilet paper, food, HIV medication. Everything has to be bought and it’s not cheap … If I didn’t get donations, I’d have to eat the normal prison food. I had it the other morning and then I nearly got sick all over this new prisoner.”
So what about her HIV? ”I feel OK, but I’m tired a lot and I have a sick stomach a lot of the time. They give me the medication, and there is a clinic here in the prison. Luckily huge progress is being made in research and I am confident that I will die an old lady.”
About half the inmates of the jail are murderers and Atherton says she keeps mainly to herself.
Most of the foreigners have been moved to Ancon 2 supermax prison, three hours outside Lima. The only other Westerner is a Dutch woman called Francesca, who was caught with 46 kilograms of cocaine. She is serving her 11th year of a 15-year sentence. In her mid-40, she seems happy enough with her lot.
”I was told I would be bringing two litres of liquid cocaine in my bag,” she says, laughing. ”It turned out to be a bit more.”
Francesca looks around the prison with pride.
”This is the best prison is South America, without a doubt.”
Despite the apparent grim nature of her circumstances, Atherton says she has settled into prison life.
”Yeah, it’s been over five years. Getting caught was still the most surreal part,” says Bronwyn. ”I only saw the bag when I got to the airport. Every voice in my head was telling me that this was the worst decision ever and I was going to get caught, but I did it anyway. I was handed a bag weighing 48 kilograms outside, 18 kilograms of which was cocaine. I could hardly lift it. As soon as I walked into the airport, the security guard came straight up to me and asked me to open the bag. I said I don’t have a key for the lock. They pulled me into a small room and stuck this poker through the bag and I could see that there was cocaine at the end of it.”
Besides cocaine, Atherton says the bag contained jumpers, cushions, blankets and all the things you need to go to jail. ”The way it works is that the gangs pay off security people at the airports. They are on low wages so it can be anything up to €1000 ($1515) or more,” she says. ”They also get a bonus for catching people. In my case I had 18 kilograms in my bag, but I was only done for 17 kilograms as they kept one for themselves. Often they return the lot back to the cartels.
”After that you go through the motions. In my case, they didn’t launch a big investigation, they weren’t out to find the guys who put me up to it, and they just got my details. I spent 15 days in holding, then was shipped around a bit, got interrogated and fingerprinted 100 times. They just do paperwork and then you go to prison.”
Barker says: ”A lot of the time mules get set up to fall, so they get the supplies to go to prison within their bags. It’s sick, but that’s how these gangs work.”
A seizure at the airport would also open up an opportunity to get a larger shipment through at another location, like a land, sea or municipal airport elsewhere.
And Atherton was not keen to tell the police who had forced her into this situation. ”Rats get shot,” she says. She refused to inform on her Colombian ”uncle” and his henchmen who put her up to the task. ”I know a girl who ratted and got shot as soon as she walked out the gates. I’m not going to go through this only to be shot at the gates when I walk free. No way mate.”
So has there been much progress on a possible early release? ”The [Peruvian] government is trying to impress the US and show people that they are hard on drug smugglers. Remember, I did know what I was doing, so I am a criminal.
”That said, I could get a group pardon and my lawyers are working on it now.”
Barker warns, though, that there is a danger that if Atherton is a model inmate, she could be incarcerated for longer. ”Anyone foreign with a large revenue stream is keeping the prisons going, so they may not want them to leave too soon.”
In the meantime, Atherton writes letters to people, which get published on her Facebook page.
”I am kept busy painting,” she says as she shows off art works that will be sent to Australia and auctioned to raise money. She has also painted a mural at the entrance of the prison and keeps herself busy by writing. ”When I get out, I want to change the world and publish my book. I want to make sure this never happens to anyone again.”
But there will be one more pressing priority.
”The first thing I’ll do when I get out is run into the Pacific Ocean … I just want to swim and be free. Then I want to go back to my mother in Australia. I need my mum.’