“Gato’s head snapped back… We could make out the shots of several 9mms, a couple of 38s and one or two 45s. I hurled myself through the doorway and into the room. I didn’t look back.”

Caught in an Ecuador hotel room with 8kg of cocaine, Pieter Tritton was no mule or dupe. He had planned and organised everything. The consequence: a 12-year sentence inside one of the world’s deadliest prison systems, where gun fights, executions and riots are a part of everyday life. As a Brit banged up abroad, Pieter had to learn how to survive – and fast – because one wrong move would mean death.

This is the insider account of what it’s like to live in a place worse than hell and come out a changed man on the other side.


Pieter Tritton walked out of Wandsworth Prison on 26 August 2015, after serving the last two years of his sentence there. He has returned to his home town and with the help of a loving family and friends is building a new life.


About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
1. Looking Down the Line
2. The Bust
3. Into the Darkness
4. We Come to a Full Stop
5. Into Hell
6. C Wing, Garcia Moreno Prison
7. Just Another Day in Paradise
8. Whisky Galore
9. Nicky
10. Sentencia
11. Monopoly
12. Hotel Garcia Moreno
13. Another Bloody Sunday
14. Paro!
15. Escape, Part 1
16. Ghosted
17. The Road is Long
18. La Peni
19. Atenuado Abajo
20. Exodus
21. The Last Supper
22. Three Blind Mice
23. Changing Places
24. Division of the Gangs
25. TB
26. The Most Painful Loss
27. Simon
28. Traslado – Transfer
29. A New Beginning
30. Escape, Part 2
31. The Regional
32. Back into the Fray
33. Adios
34. HMP Wandsworth
35. Home
Title Page for El Infierno: Drugs, Gangs, Riots and Murder: My time inside Ecuador’s toughest prisons

This book is dedicated to the memory of my mother Joan Anderson and to all the friends who didn’t make it home.



I’M SITTING IN a garden in the blazing heat of a French summer, trying to recall all the events of the last decade or so. Eleven years have passed since I last sat at this table. I’m a very different person to the one who left our house in France all those years ago. I’m sick, for one thing, and I have a very different perspective on life. This is what happened, a story I could never have invented.

I arrived at the same house in the middle of France sometime in June 2005 after being smuggled out of Britain by the Turkish mafia in the boot of an old Mercedes car. Most of the people smuggling is in the opposite direction these days.

I had had to leave Britain in a hurry, as things were getting too hot for me. A few months earlier there had been a huge bust of an apartment in Edinburgh, in which the police had uncovered a ‘cocaine laboratory’. They had arrested two Colombians, and seized cocaine, precursor chemicals, mixing agents, a 15-ton floor-standing press and lots of other equipment, along with pieces of a tent groundsheet. This raid had hit the headlines big time. It was mentioned on all channels of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and covered by nearly every national newspaper.

Following months and months of heavy surveillance, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, or SOCA, had received various pieces of intelligence from all the informants in the case. The key informant had tipped them off that something was about to take place in Edinburgh. Two Colombians I knew arrived at a flat in Leith, the docks area of the city, in which I had been staying occasionally. I had left the flat having spotted two plain-clothes police officers in an unmarked car watching the building to the rear. I took a taxi to the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, leaving the white Transit van I had on hire parked directly across the road from the flat. I had told the Colombians I would call them in the morning, at 10am. I had a restless night, hardly able to sleep for worrying about what might be happening.

I awoke the following morning, ate breakfast, showered and packed my bag. At this point I called the Colombians to see how the job was progressing, but all their phones were off. My mouth began to dry up, a feeling of intense anxiety spreading through my body. They never turned their phones off. My instincts were screaming at me so loudly I thought the people in the next room might hear them.

The police were working hard to try to implicate me in this whole scenario and it had got to the point where I didn’t feel like taking a chance. So I decided to disappear to France to sit it out and see what happened. I had to stop using all my phones, bank cards and any other electronics that could leave a trail.

I arrived in a cold, dank Calais where my Turkish couriers said goodbye and promised to sort me out with a car soon, as one of them owed me money. I decided to hire a French car to get by with until they turned up with a vehicle. After much wrangling, I persuaded the hire company to let me pay cash and leave cash deposits and I was mobile.

I arrived at our house, which my father had bought some 25 years previously, the next day and settled in, relieved to have at least put some distance between me and all the trouble. I called my girlfriend, Nicky, and asked her to collect a car the Turks now had ready for me, and to drive it over to France. I also asked if she could collect my clothes from the flat I had been living in behind my parents’ house. Once she had the car packed I told her to drive to Dover, bringing her daughter Emily with her, so they could have a holiday for a few days. I arranged to meet her in Paris and return the hire car to an office there at the same time. We would then all drive back south to the French house and have a week or so there, before she and Emily flew back to England from the local airport.

Nicky made it to Paris and checked into a hotel in a suburb in the north, and I arrived the following day. We chatted on the terrace of a cafe while watching Emily exploring a park next to the hotel. It was nice to be in their company once again.

The following day, we drove the Renault the Turks had provided all the way back to the house. Over the next few days I showed them round. Emily was quickly bored by the countryside and yearned to be back in Paris. After a few days she began to demand to go home or back to Paris or else she would run away. We asked her what she wanted to do, but it was always the same reply: ‘Go home or go back to Paris.’

Next morning when Nicky and I came down for breakfast there was no sign of Emily. She had done a runner. We started to panic at the thought of this pretty fifteen-year-old trying to hitch-hike her way to Paris, not speaking any French. We jumped in the car and started to search the area, passing through villages and towns asking anyone we saw if they had noticed a young girl of her description. No one had.

After driving around for several hours and calling her phone repeatedly to no avail, we decided to contact the police. Not exactly the people I most wanted to talk to, but we had no choice. We found a very friendly officer at a local police station who spoke reasonable English and made a full report of what had happened. It was getting dark by now and Nicky was distraught. The gendarmes took the situation very seriously and began searching the area. They told us to go home and wait. We made our way back to the house, hoping and praying she would be there. It was a terrible experience.

We pulled up outside the house to find lights on that hadn’t been when we had departed. We raced into the house, calling Emily’s name, and found her snuggled up in her bed asleep. We woke her up to make sure she was OK and to find out where she had gone. It turned out that she had just gone up to the village a quarter of a mile away and sat on the steps of the church, chatting to a young English boy who was there on holiday. She told us she had seen us driving past several times on our search for her. I was fairly mad with her. I called the police to let them know she was back. What seemed like minutes later a riot van full of gendarmes arrived at the house.

Great, I thought. Just what I bloody need! I’m in hiding from the British police and now I’ve got a houseful of French ones.

They insisted on talking to Emily on her own to ensure that everything was OK at home with us. Once they were satisfied, they left. I decided to put Nicky and Emily on the next flight back to England. Emily was upset and really not enjoying herself, and I didn‘t want a repeat performance happening, thus drawing even more attention from the gendarmes. We said our farewells and off they went. That was the last time I ever saw Emily.

Why have I started my story with this minor incident? To say sorry, Emily. Sorry for all that happened next. Sorry for your mum’s arrest. Sorry for the prison sentence she got and never deserved. And sorry for all those years you and she missed together. And you are just one of the many people I want to say sorry to, for all the pain and anguish I caused.

Some days after they left, I spoke to one of my partners. Using a pay phone for anonymity, I dialled the number with trepidation, just imagining all those computers about to click into action at the first syllable of my voice. Voice recognition was a real worry. I generally wouldn’t talk on a phone in a car, hotel room or any building – anywhere I thought they might be able to intercept the call. However, at times it was, to some extent, unavoidable, and this was one of those times. I listened to the phone begin to ring, wondering if I shouldn’t just hang up now while I still could and call it a day altogether.

Following the raid on the apartment in Scotland the police were already extremely keen to interview me. On one occasion, I had called the police station in Edinburgh to speak to one of the officers heading up the case after they had threatened to cause my sister, Sarah, a lot of problems, even though she had no involvement in or even knowledge of what I had been doing. When I was finally connected the officer to whom I was speaking asked in a friendly manner if I could ‘please come in for a wee chat’. To which I replied, ‘I’m afraid I’m not in Scotland at the moment and probably won’t be coming back up there for quite some time as I am a little busy at the moment.’ In a very civil manner, I then asked, ‘Please leave my sister out of this whole situation. She is not involved and you know she’s not.’

‘Right you are then. We will think about it but would very much like you to pop in to answer some questions the next chance you get,’ said the officer, barely able to stop himself from exploding.

I really could feel the long arm of the law reaching right down the phone line and taking a firm grip around my throat. After that, I had known it was just a question of time before the forensic test results came back to them, at which point they would most certainly come looking for me. I called the Turks and asked for a one-way lift out of England.

I had only been out of prison a couple of years having been first arrested in England in May 2000, the day after Nicky’s birthday. The police had discovered 5,000 ecstasy tablets, along with several kilos of marijuana, 2kg of amphetamines and a couple of ounces of cocaine. The end result, after spending nearly two years on remand at Gloucester prison, was a five-year prison sentence, most of which I spent in category A maximum security conditions. I served nearly three years and was given parole. It was during this time I had decided that if I was going to traffic drugs then it would only be cocaine – small volume, high value – and I was going right to the source, Colombia, in order to buy it. I would then arrange the shipping and sale once it was back in Britain.

After my release in 2003, I set about looking for a good connection. It was not long before I was introduced to Nico, who was a Colombian, had all the necessary contacts and who could make the arrangements in his country. Hence our partnership was formed.

‘Hello, hello.’ Nico’s voice hit my eardrum, jolting me out of my thoughts.

‘Nico, it’s me.’

‘Hey man, where you bin?’ Nico asked, in his heavy Colombian accent. ‘I bin really worried about chu man, where you bin? I thought chu was dead!’

‘I had to get out of the country after all the trouble up in Edinburgh.’

‘Yeah man, la policia is going crazy for you. They got a hard on for you my friend. Better not come back here soon. Where you staying?’

Again with the questions. It had been happening too much of late and a few of us had begun to have some doubts about Nico. He and a couple of other South Americans had been arrested earlier on in 2004 when the police raided a flat they were using as a small laboratory and discovered three kilos of pure cocaine and a hydraulic press, along with various chemicals. All the others had received prison sentences but Nico had somehow managed to get released after six months with no charge. Following his release, Nico became extremely inquisitive and would ask strange questions that generally in the drugs business you just don’t ask, such as, ‘what car you driving?’, ‘where you going?’, ‘where you been?’ – just weird questions. Something was wrong.

I avoided the question. ‘Is there anything ready over in Colombia with El Comandante?’ I asked. This was the nickname of our man over in Colombia – an ex-marine turned paramilitary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

‘Yeah, Comandante has a small one ready with just a couple. You wanna go over, get outta the way for a while and organise that?’

So there was a small job ready and waiting to be collected, if I felt up to organising everything. On this occasion, it was supposed to be two kilos of finest Peruvian flake cocaine impregnated in the groundsheet of a small tent. It had already been transported from Cali in Colombia to Quito in Ecuador. All I had to do was pay for it there and find a ‘mule’, or passenger, to carry it back to England. I had access to both these – the mule and the money – I just didn’t want to go back to prison. They had way too much evidence on me in England. But I decided to give it one last go.

When Nico and the others had been arrested we had an agreement between the three partners – Nico, me and one other – that if anyone got locked up it was the responsibility of whoever was free to look after the families of the others in prison. I kept my word and paid all their bills for the six months Nico was away and presented him with £40,000 in cash when he was freed. A welcome home gesture.

Nico had been the one who had shown me the system of impregnation. At the time this technique was fairly new. People had been soaking clothes in a solution containing the cocaine for a long time. The problem with that was the smell was easily detected by a sniffer dog. It also crystallised on the material and would make it stiffer and therefore quite noticeable.

The method we used was a lot more advanced but also far harder to do. The cocaine was dissolved in a solution of various chemicals and then combined with a type of plastic while it too was in a liquid state. This then had to be dried, ensuring the plastic was as thin as possible. Once dry, you had a piece of plastic very similar to the rubber used for inner tubes of mountain bikes. It had no smell, could not be detected by X-ray or scanner and we put in a chemical to counteract the reactive test the police use. These sheets were then incorporated into the lining of something. In our case, it was the middle layer of the groundsheet for a tent. We could put in as much as five kilograms of cocaine in one go.

Once the tent arrived at its destination we would go through a reverse process, again using various solvents and acids, to extract the cocaine. Only the pure cocaine would come out. We would normally lose 10–15 per cent in volume in the process. This method was extremely good and is still in use, only today cocaine can be put in virtually anything and then extracted – polystyrene, plastics, paper, wood, perfume, wine, vodka, cosmetics and even glass. There are so many ways now. If you picked up the item you would have absolutely no idea that you were holding two or three kilos of pure cocaine, worth nearly £100,000 at today’s wholesale prices in London. That’s one hell of an expensive tent.

The job seemed straightforward and the risks minimal as only five people knew my approximate whereabouts, four of whom were family. I decided that it would also give me a chance to meet up with El Comandante. I wanted a face-to-face with him in order to plan out our next operation and change the location to somewhere in Europe, but not France. The reason for not working in France was the fact that my family had a house there. Don’t shit where you eat.

I arranged for a friend from the UK to fly over with £25,000. We spent an enjoyable weekend drinking wine and catching up on events back home in Britain, including the newspaper reports of the bust in Edinburgh. When my friend left I headed up to Paris to go to the airport and buy tickets to Quito, using cash to avoid leaving any trail. Over the next couple of days, having bought the tickets, I stayed in a boutique hotel at the top of the Champs-Élysées just the other side of the Arc de Triomphe. I used my time to find an amenable bureau de change where I could change £20,000 into euros with no questions asked and no ID required. This, as you can imagine, is a very delicate procedure, even more so post-9/11 when cash is immediately viewed as suspicious. Thanks to the €500 note, the euro was the perfect currency for my purposes. In dollars, of course, the biggest denomination is the hundred dollar bill, meaning the neat little package of cash I needed to carry would have to be five times bigger.

I spent a good few hours wandering up and down the Champs-Élysées reconnoitring the various bureaux, looking for an independent one as shady in appearance as possible. The big chains such as Travelex were out, and it took me a while to find a bureau I liked the look of. It was located halfway down a touristy street, recessed from the road in a gloomy-looking small arcade that did not look very busy. Behind the 2-inch bulletproof glass sat a large Arab-looking man dragging on a Gauloises, sporting a chunky gold Rolex on his fat wrist. He had a slightly nervous look about him. Perfect. I approached the counter and pulled out an already separated bundle of some £600.

‘Would it be possible to change these notes to euros? I’m afraid I have forgotten to bring my ID, is that a problem?’

The Arab took a long draw on the Gauloises while his eyes peered through lenses nearly as thick as the glass behind which he sat.

‘No problem at all, Monsieur, no problem.’

Yes, perfect.

‘Would I be able to change any more?’ I asked as he was handing over the first bundle, producing a couple of thousand more.

‘Yes, yes, no problem. How much you have to change?’ This man liked money and liked easy money even more.

‘Well, twenty thousand in total.’

‘Bon, no problem, we do it in four or five goes, come back every hour.’

Perhaps not so perfect. The hour delay could be so the system didn’t show anything suspicious, or it could be that I would be walking into a trap when I returned. Just long enough to call the gendarmes and have me arrested. I looked closely at his face and decided that this was someone who you could do a deal with.

I spent the next few hours wandering up and down the Champs-Élysées, calling in every hour between coffees to change wads of notes. On one occasion, a group of tourists came in behind me and had to wait while the money counter whirred away checking €6,000 in high-denomination notes. By the end of the afternoon a small bag of English banknotes had been reduced in size to a slim envelope fitting easily in the inside pocket of my jacket. Excellent.

The plan was for Nicky to join me in Quito a couple of days after I had concluded my business, so that we could enjoy a holiday together and I could show her the country. The mule’s flight was due to arrive roughly two weeks after I had dealt with the initial exchange with El Comandante, when he would hand over the tent containing the impregnated cocaine. I thought that if there was any heat from the police it would have died down by then. In the meantime, I would hold on to the tent. We had an unblemished track record so far as the mules were concerned. Not a single one had been arrested. This was very important to me as I never wanted to see anyone go to prison; I did as much as I possibly could to minimise the risks they faced, and it had worked so far.

So, in short, I would go to Ecuador, get the tent, spend a couple of weeks with Nicky, pass on the tent to the mule and send him on his way, return to France, grab a change of clothes and head out to my mate’s place in Thailand and wait there for the money to be transferred to me after the business was concluded. Nice and simple. While I was in Paris, my father and stepmother arrived at the house for a visit. When I returned to the house early the next evening they were in the garden having dinner and enjoying the warmth. I had a few days before I flew to Quito and was looking forward to spending some time with them.

Of course, they wanted to know why I was going to South America. I told them I was going to Ecuador to buy a container load of Panama hats, which I planned to sell at cricket matches. They asked loads of questions about how I could charge enough for the hats to make it pay and wondered what I was doing going out to South America again. They knew I had been out to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela five or more times that year. They also asked why I was going so soon after the incident in Edinburgh, which I had told them was nothing to do with me.

I hate lying and felt terrible about it. I could see the worry in my father’s eyes. He really didn’t want me to go out there this time. I was beginning to feel that I didn’t really want to go myself. I would much rather relax at the house with my family, drink some wine and eat good food instead. But too many people were involved by this point and wheels had been set in motion.

The day before my flight I packed my large black holdall for the trip. Early the next morning I got up and had breakfast with my father. He once again asked if my trip was really necessary. I was committed, but it was all beginning to feel wrong. We drove into the local town so I could catch an early train up to Paris. The two of us stood on the quiet platform awaiting the train. It was one of those cool, slightly misty mornings you get before a hot day. As the train pulled into the station my father embraced me and said, ‘Take care, son. Go careful and look after yourself. Hope to see you soon. Love you.’

He rarely said that he loved me, but I knew that he did. I boarded the train, found my seat and then went back to the window in the carriage door. I watched my father standing on the platform in the mist as the train pulled away.



‘QUETO, NO LO mueves, manos arriba!’ Stop, don’t move, hands up!

Nicky and I were laughing and joking as we strolled down the corridor. Nicky had flown into Quito that morning and we were returning from a great dinner in an upmarket restaurant close to the hotel where we were staying on Avenida Amazonas, in the new part of the city, high up in the Andes. I slid the card key into the lock and, just as it clicked open, all hell broke loose. A group of heavily armed men in plain clothes charged down the corridor towards us, guns drawn, wearing balaclavas – shit! I knew it was the police. They might as well have been wearing badges.

I looked at Nicky, who was in shock.

‘Don’t say or sign anything! Let me do the talking—’ I whispered urgently.

They were on us by the end of the sentence. We were grabbed and led into the hotel suite: Nicky into the bedroom and me into the living room. That sick feeling was washing over me from the adrenalin coursing through my system but I tried to keep it under control. The Ecuadorian police are renowned for being corrupt. I was hopeful I’d be able to broker some sort of deal.

The police rapidly located the rucksack containing the tent with the cocaine impregnated in its rubber groundsheet. They had obviously been into the suite while we were out as they went straight to it, making a great show of being surprised by their find. They searched both Nicky and me, emptying our pockets, and opened the safe in the bedroom, revealing about $2,500 in cash, passports and phones, which were all bagged up as evidence.

One of the Ecuadorian police officers, who seemed to be in charge, spoke some English, so I subtly tried to get his attention.

‘Is there some other way we can resolve this problem?’ I quietly asked. ‘I can get $25,000 here within the hour if we could just forget about this misunderstanding – after all there are no drugs in evidence, only an old camping tent.’

‘Señor, we are the Ecuadorian police force. We do not receive money. We are not corrupt.’ I almost laughed out loud. Yeah, sure thing tonto!

It was at this point that I realised that this operation was being overseen by someone else. I imagined that the British police must be in the background, making sure that this way out was closed to me and that I was definitely arrested. Otherwise the Ecuadorians would almost certainly have jumped at the offer.

We were handcuffed, taken to the elevator and down to the underground car park of the hotel where a car was waiting for each of us, along with four police armed with M16 assault rifles and side arms. We were whisked away through the familiar streets of Quito, back towards the airport where poor Nicky had just arrived that very morning and to the headquarters of Interpol, who, it turned out, had made the arrests. The dark streets flashed by in a haze, my mind whirling as I imagined the repercussions.

Upon arriving at the Interpol HQ, the cars were driven into a courtyard through a solid steel gate, bordered by watchtowers with armed guards. Nicky and I were led from the cars into a nondescript three-storey building that from the outside resembled any other small office premises, but within it held dark, dank communal cells. Down badly lit narrow corridors the men’s cells lay directly ahead and the women’s to the right, both facing on to an enclosed and roofed courtyard.

Racing through my mind were thoughts of my family, how they were going to react once I was able to call them. What was I going to say? My parents were going to be devastated, as was Emily. She was with her grandparents, who had no idea even as to our whereabouts. I also really needed to contact my friends in Britain to tell them to clear everything up and disappear for a couple of weeks. I didn’t want anyone else to be arrested.

I immediately asked that the British embassy be informed of our arrests as I knew they were obliged to help out to some extent, although I guessed they probably already knew, if I was right and the British police were involved. I knew they had had us under heavy surveillance for several months in Britain. I was also fairly sure several people were acting as police informants against me as I had been tipped off by family members, corrupt police and just that sixth sense we all have. This was the culmination of their efforts for sure. It was probable that Nico was responsible for my capture as he had arranged this whole deal. No one else knew I was out here. There had been too many coincidences all pointing the finger of doubt towards Nico.

The British police tended to operate out of the embassy or closely with them when investigating cross-border crime. The Ecuadorian police said they would contact the embassy if I provided them with the number. How the hell was I supposed to do that? They assured me they would do their best to contact them, but for the time being we would have to wait. Waiting was something I was to become very accustomed to doing.



IT WAS APPROACHING midnight when I was reunited with Nicky, first allowing me to give her a hug and kiss.

‘Look at me, Nicky,’ I said, and she tilted her head and looked into my eyes. ‘I promise you I will get you out of here. I’m not sure how long it’s going to take but I absolutely assure you I will get you out. I will do whatever it takes.’

She simply replied ‘OK’ and put her head back against my chest.

She was shocked and bewildered. Knowing the pain I was causing the one I loved was like a knife to the stomach. I held her in one final embrace that I never wanted to end, trying to reassure her, feeling her warm, shaking body against mine. Then the police separated us and I watched as the barred doors closed behind her and the women in the holding cell began greeting her.

Now it was my turn. The police officers led me towards the men’s holding area. It looked like a dark hole from which it seemed if I entered I might never return. The officer pulled back the gate and pointed towards the left-hand side of the holding area. Directly in front of the gate was a wall and a corridor leading to the left, along which I could just make out entrances to cells, two on each side. A solitary light bulb hung from a cable, illuminating a shower area and toilet. As I advanced cautiously the gate behind me closed with a resounding clang. This is a sound you will only ever hear in prison, and one you can never forget. It is the sound of defeat, of loss and helplessness, of utter despair. It is followed shortly afterwards by the grinding of metal on metal as the key to your destiny turns. At this point all control over your life is suspended and you are a prisoner.

I advanced warily down the corridor bracing myself for contact or attack from another prisoner, but nobody emerged. Strange. The ringing silence of the darkness intensified a little more as I moved towards the bathroom area at the end of the corridor and the smell of urine and faeces began to tickle my nose. The second cell on my right was also empty. What the fuck was going on? I could hear the women chattering away, their voices drifting down the corridor. I sat down heavily on the bottom bunk, no more than a concrete shelf designed to take a mattress – of course there was none – along with a whole lot more of nothing. At this point the weight of the problem began pressing down not only on my shoulders but over my entire body, as if I was in a diving bell with the pressure being slowly increased. I sat there in the dark and cold trying to collect my thoughts.

At this point I was still optimistic because they hadn’t actually charged me yet with any specific quantity. The cocaine impregnated in the rubber groundsheet was not visible to the naked eye. Perhaps the police thought there were only a few grams, as they hadn‘t mentioned anything about kilos yet. We hadn’t lost a single load in over two years of operating. Please, please let it be so.

My thoughts, which were beginning to spiral out of control, were interrupted by a cough and hushed murmuring from the other end of the corridor, but still no one appeared. It began to dawn on me that perhaps the police were trying to hold me separately from the other prisoners for whatever reason. I continued to sit there, listening to the night slowly sliding by, the traffic passing on the road in front and the nearby airport where I’d landed a few days earlier.

I thought back to the day of my arrival and the few peculiarities that now, on reflection, were starting to make sense. The first was at passport control, where a pretty Ecuadorian police officer with a clipboard was standing to the side, examining everybody’s face. Seeing me, she did an almost comical double take as if she could barely hide her excitement. She hurried off and out of sight through a door, I now realised to inform her supervisors of my arrival. At immigration, I casually looked behind me and noticed the same police officer with the clipboard had reappeared, now in the company of a male officer. They were having an animated discussion and kept glancing in my direction. I tried to steady my nerves as the €25,000 in my inside jacket pocket burned a hole in my chest. I knew full well that this alone would mean a prolonged stay in the prison in Quito.

I presented my passport to the official in the control booth, who swiped it. There was an immediate change in her face from one of abject boredom to interest and excitement. I had passed through this control on four previous occasions without a blink or second look. ‘Please could you wait here one moment, sir, I have to check something,’ and off she disappeared with the passport. This hadn’t happened before. Was there some kind of marker on my passport, I wondered. After a few minutes, she returned and apologised for the wait, and began joking around and almost flirting with me, saying, ‘You could teach me English any time. I would love some lessons from you.’

All this behaviour had set alarm bells ringing, but I had chosen to ignore them. As I sat in the cell I wished that I had walked away then and there. Taken a bus to Colombia or Peru and disappeared as quickly as possible. But I hadn’t. I couldn’t sleep and just sat there pondering my fate for the rest of the night, wondering how I might get us out of this one, or at least minimise the damage.

The days and nights in Ecuador are of equal length. The sun appears at about 6am and disappears again at around 6pm, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. So at 5.30am the walls of the cell started to turn a pallid grey. Around this time the airport kicked into life and the acrid smell of aviation fuel penetrated my dungeon, reminding me of the flight I should have taken and was now going to miss in the coming week. I could hear the roar of the turbines from the jets as they took off and landed. The traffic on the road to the front of the Interpol station had picked up as well and there was a steady hum of cars passing by, people on their way to work and school, going about their normal lives.

I stuck my head out of the cell doorway a couple of times to see who was in the other end of the holding area, but I couldn’t see anyone. It was fully light when someone finally emerged and came down to use the toilet. He was a thinlooking guy around 32 years old, clean-shaven and respectable-looking. He introduced himself in broken English. ‘Hello good morning. My name is Hassan. I am from Lebanon.’ He had a soft gentle tone of voice and pleasant friendly manner. I warmed to him immediately. ‘You are English?’ he asked me.

‘Yes, from the south, 100 miles west of London,’ I replied. ‘My name is Pieter.’

‘Ah, very good, I know London. I have been three or four times, I like it very much. Many pretty girls.’ I laughed and we were friends.

‘I’m glad to have met someone who speaks English. My girlfriend is in the womens’ holding cell.’

‘Why are you here?’ Hassan asked. ‘The guard tell us all, “Move, quick, quick. Big international traficante is coming. No one speak to him or you get big trouble.”’

Blimey, I thought, as I listened and it dawned on me that I was the big-time trafficker he was talking about. Shit! The police were taking this very seriously indeed.

‘Do you want to move back to this end?’ I enquired, feeling bad that my arrival had caused all the other people in custody to be cramped together in a small cell the other end.

‘I ask guard first. I no want trouble, guards very bad here.’ He looked a bit nervous at the mention of the guards. God only knows what sort of torture techniques they used on people here. Hassan went to use the toilet. When he came back he asked, ‘What did they catch you with? Drug?’

‘Yes. They arrested me in a hotel on Avenida Amazonas called Mercure.’

‘I am here for drugs as well. They say we are big organisation. That we are terrorists! Pa. The policia say we send cocaine to Hezbollah in my country and they buy guns and bombs and kill many people. I have grande problema my friend.’ He looked deflated by saying this. ‘I go ask guards if we can come back here. We can share cell. My brother is here as well and some other friends. I bring them now.’

‘OK, great,’ I replied. Off he went into the darkness at the other end of the corridor.

Before long other people started to appear. Some introduced themselves, others not. I think there were about ten of us at this point, four of whom were Hassan’s co-defendants. They were all Arab, all educated and well travelled. Most spoke English. Quite a few of the Ecuadorians appeared to be emaciated, skeletal shells ravaged by drug abuse. Only one spoke English. He had been arrested for possession of a gram of weed – one joint.

Hassan had spoken to the guards in fluent Spanish to find out if they were permitted to move back into the cells in my end so they could have more space. I would spend the next six weeks living with Hassan and his friends until we were finally transferred. During this period they helped me a lot with translation, explaining how the prison was, dos and don’ts, food and general support.

It was the second or third day when the vice consul from the British embassy in Quito arrived to speak with me and Nicky. As I had guessed they were already aware owing to the involvement of the British police. They had instigated the arrest having passed intelligence to the Ecuadorians as to my whereabouts, the purpose of my visit and – crucially – the method we were using to smuggle the cocaine out of the country. This the Ecuadorian police had let slip at some point when boasting about having captured me. It was further confirmed when I received some papers from the prosecutor. On the very first page was the sentence ‘we were called by a female officer from the British police who informed us of your arrival and intentions to traffic drugs, namely cocaine, from this country to Europe’.

The vice consul, a woman called Rachel, brought both Nicky and me a fleece blanket, toiletries and some food, along with an information pack outlining exactly what they could and couldn’t do to help.

I asked Rachel, ‘How can the embassy assist Nicky and me legally? Are you obliged to provide a lawyer free of charge to us as in Britain? Does legal aid apply here?’

This barrage of questions was turning into an overwhelming tidal wave. Rachel raised her hands, signalling for me to stop. But I already had an idea as to what the answer was going to be.

‘I’m afraid we can’t interfere or be seen to be meddling in another country’s legal system. I’m very sorry but we can’t offer any help on the legal front other than providing a list of lawyers we recommend.’

Nicky’s face dropped. I hadn’t really expected any help from the British government in trying to regain our freedom, as I was now sure it was they who were doing their utmost to lock me up. But Nicky had been more optimistic, believing the embassy was duty bound to pay for a lawyer and go out of their way to make sure we were freed.

‘We have a list of reputable lawyers with whom the embassy has worked in the past,’ Rachel went on. ‘The problem in this country is that a lot of the supposed lawyers are unqualified and out to con you. We have had several other British inmates robbed of large quantities of cash. You have to be very careful when it comes to lawyers.’

She handed us each a copy of the list, which ran to several pages. The information pack also included a great deal about daily life in the prison, how to receive money transfers, communication with family, and some Spanish translations of common words and phrases. The basic process of how the legal system worked in Ecuador was outlined.

During the first meeting Rachel revealed that she had actually been told by the British authorities to have nothing to do with me, not even to speak to me, which she said was the first time this had ever happened. She asked if this was a reflection of the seriousness of the case back in Britain, which it obviously was. Rachel very kindly offered to contact our families and allowed me to make a call to my father and stepmother, who were still in France. Needless to say, it was one of the hardest phone calls I have ever had to make. They were horrified and ever so upset. My mother, who was in England, was distraught and almost unable to comprehend what had happened. It broke my heart. Nicky also called her parents, who were devastated and beside themselves with worry.

Rachel left behind a pen, writing paper, envelopes and some books so we could write letters and read a bit to pass the time. We had to get food brought in every day because Interpol provided nothing. The embassy took care of this and sent their driver in daily with a good quantity of food.

When Rachel had gone, I looked at the list of lawyers in some depth and chose a firm who seemed reputable and spoke English. I contacted the embassy and asked if they could make the necessary arrangements. A couple of days later they arrived in full regalia. Two lawyers, nice suits, secretaries, assistants, the works, which drew more than a little attention from the other prisoners.

Both Nicky and I were let out to discuss the case with the lawyers and sign a form stating that they were to act on our behalf. They assured me that they would be able to secure the minimum sentence of four years or even get me released. Nicky, they said, should be no problem at all as she had only been in the country for six hours before being arrested and was obviously innocent. They asked that we give them some time to review the evidence and to see what they could work out. They informed me that they had to return a week later in order to take the first statement from me, something demanded by Ecuadorian law. With that they were gone. The question of fees had been left open as they wanted to assess what they were going to be taking on before quoting me a figure.

One of the prisoners had managed to smuggle in a mobile phone. With the help of Hassan interpreting, I could pay the guy who owned it and use the phone. I was able to call a few of my contacts whose numbers I had memorised and from them get other people’s numbers. In this way, I warned everybody that I had run into trouble and for them all to clear up whatever they were doing and lie low. I now know that those few phone calls saved a number people from having to spend many years locked up.

Around this time, a young Colombian guy, Juan, and his mother were led in and placed in respective cells. They were charged with possessing a tiny amount of cocaine, less than ten grams. He was absolutely distraught that his mother had been detained because of a crime he had committed. After they had been there a few days his lawyer turned up. They all went off and had a meeting to discuss their case. His mother could go free if he paid the sum of $90, but he was penniless and became extremely upset at the prospect of his mother being imprisoned. I had been watching and listening and I decided to intervene. That amount to me was nothing – especially considering what I was spending on lawyers – but it could buy the freedom of this woman. I tapped him on the shoulder and held out the $90 and gestured that he should take it. He couldn’t believe it and broke down in tears, thanking me over and over again. Within a few hours his mother was free and Juan was happy. It felt good to have helped out.

As there were no mattresses provided, I had been sleeping on my clothes. The Arabs explained that I could have a mattress brought in if I paid the police a little money. I thought they were joking, but no. This was Ecuador after all. I arranged with my family for a fair chunk of money to be sent over via the Foreign Office to the embassy in Quito. This was free of charge and would mean I could start things moving with the case and also be able to buy Nicky and me a mattress each. This was a huge relief for our aching backs, arms and legs. The first night, it felt like the softest, deepest, most luxurious mattress ever made, even though it was only a thin piece of foam.

Nicky collapsed after the fourth or fifth day, having drunk the tap water and contracted a virus. The local ambulance service had had to come in and put her on a drip for a few hours, which seemed to sort her out. I felt like it was me who had poisoned her. In a way, I had.

Nicky and I were able to speak to each other twenty-four hours a day because our holding cells faced one another across the small internal courtyard. We supported each other through these tough days and it made an enormous difference to both of us just being able to communicate and give each other the occasional hug. We would spend our days trying to work out our defence case or just chatting to one another to while away the hours. I could see the strain beginning to show on her face as the days passed slowly.

A week went by without much happening and then the lawyers arrived. We were led to an office area and the interview started. On the charge sheet from the police it appeared that they had listed a quantity of just 7.8 grams of cocaine. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then thought that perhaps this was all the surface residue they had managed to accumulate and they had not found the cocaine that was impregnated in the rubber groundsheet. This meant that no drugs were visible to the naked eye, even if you had cut the rubber, as the cocaine was now a piece of rubber itself. Hiding the cocaine this way so it could pass through the X-ray scanner and fool the sniffer dogs was almost foolproof – unless an informant directed the authorities to it. This must have been what had happened in my case. I hadn’t disclosed that I knew anything about any drugs at this point, so the police had no idea how much was concealed. I questioned the lawyer on this and he confirmed that yes, they had only charged me over this small amount. I was ecstatic. I knew this sort of quantity was a minor offence so we should be out of there very soon without them ever knowing about the two kilograms in the groundsheet.

I proceeded with the statement that Nicky and I had rehearsed over and over again through the gates of our cells, across the gloomy courtyard. I stuck to the story that I knew nothing of any drugs. I was merely there for a holiday, and a friend had asked me to bring this tent back as a favour having left it behind on a previous trip. This kind of excuse the police must have heard countless times (in fact probably every time). The difference in this case was the fact that they didn’t have blocks of cocaine or bags of powder as evidence – a big advantage, or so I thought.

After the statements were concluded, I broached the subject of the lawyers’ fees. The one with whom I had been communicating the most, as he spoke English, sat there in his fancy suit looking nervous and began toying with the ring on his pinkie finger.

‘How much are you going to charge me?’ His beady little eyes darted around the room and the ring-twisting became more furious.

‘$250,000 and we guarantee a sentence of no more than four years, out after two and you will be held in the best prison with all the big mafiosi.’

I stood up slowly and focused my gaze on the man squirming in front of me.

‘You are joking, aren’t you? I can get a better lawyer cheaper in London. You’re insane. I’m afraid there is no way I’m paying that amount. It’s completely out of the question.’

The lawyers left, promising to consult their partners and try to bring the price down. As I was led back through the narrow corridors of the Interpol station I still couldn’t believe what I had heard.

The Arabs all found it highly amusing. Hassan said, ‘They are thieves, robbers, they want to steal your money.’

It kept them entertained for at least two days. Hassan then sat me down and explained that here in Ecuador the lawyers were the biggest thieves of all and frequently robbed people of huge sums of money having promised them all manner of fantastic unrealities. Hassan had a very good lawyer who was representing not only him but a few of the others. She was local and well-connected. Being well-connected was everything here: it was who you knew or had access to that kept you out of prison. You didn’t even need a proper qualification to call yourself a lawyer. Anyone could get away with this as long as they had contacts in the judicial system. Bribery, Hassan explained, was the norm here – pay the police, pay the judges, pay whoever you needed to in order to get out. Hassan kindly offered to introduce me to the lawyer, whose name was Eva. She was due to visit him in the next couple of days to discuss their case. He promised me she would take a fraction of the money and do the job properly. I asked how much and he said 20, maybe 30, thousand dollars. That sounded more like it. I would be quite prepared to give her extra if she did a good job and got me a short sentence. Still uppermost in my mind was the fact that they thought it was only 7.8 grams. My God, they might even return the tent! That would be hilarious. In the end, though, the joke was to be on me.