Thursday 18 January 2018

Review: Memoir: The Cocaine Diaries: A Venezuelan Prison Nightmare by Paul Keany with Jeff Farrell

Mainstream Publishing, €13.99, tpbk
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Dubliner Paul Keany was 45 years old when he made the worst decision of his life. In October 2008, he agreed to smuggle six kilos of cocaine into Ireland from Venezuela on behalf of a man he barely knew.

It was a decision he would live to regret. Caught at Caracas airport with drugs valued at over €500,000 in his suitcase, he was raped by police before being sentenced to eight years in the notorious Los Teques prison.

It was unlike anything he had ever seen. He was a gringo (foreigner) in a Latin American prison full of murderers, rapists, child molesters and drug-runners. The authorities were more concerned with keeping a lid on the violence than rehabilitation.

"Walking through the gates was like walking through a time warp," he says in The Cocaine Diaries: A Venezuelan Prison Nightmare.

"I had to sleep on the floor of a toilet for months and was later promoted to a spot on the floor in the wing yard. Only after about a year did I get a bed, and only after I paid about €150 for the privilege. I had to share a toilet with up to 200 men and often ended up going in a bag when my bowels couldn't wait for the queues to end.

"For some, the conditions and daily mental and physical torture became too much and they escaped by cutting their own throats."

An occasional cocaine user, the separated father of two ran a plumbing business in Dublin, which fell apart when the building boom shuddered to a halt.

A chance meeting in a local pub resulted in him agreeing to smuggle cocaine from Venezuela, a country he had never heard of, for just €10,000.

The drugs were given to him in a Caracas hotel, hidden in a suitcase. He was caught at the airport and sent to Los Teques prison.

It's notorious, considered one of the most dangerous in South America. Designed to hold 350 inmates, more than 1,200 prisoners are incarcerated there.

Riots are commonplace -- one in 2010 killed six -- and wing bosses known as 'jefes' rule with an iron fist.

Corrupt guards allow guns into the prison, before staging raids and taking them all back.

Every inmate is expected to pay protection money. Drugs are rife, and violence and murder are a daily occurrence. This is all described in graphic detail over 270 pages.

But it's not literature. There are some awful lines, like when he describes the "stunning" judge who sentences him ("She reminded me of why the South American country has racked up the highest number of Miss World winners").

Doing the "garden bugs" is drugs, and he hopes he isn't asked to confess to any "porky pies". Given the enormous stress he must have been under, the worst in the author comes out, and it's hard to empathise with him.

He trades in racist stereotypes, calling one Romanian prisoner 'The Gypsy' ("but it was just a laugh") and gives a "pompous" German a Nazi salute and shouts "Heil Hitler" at him. His fellow prisoners are "chimps".

Asked to draw his family as matchstick men, he says it must be an easy task for the Nigerians "with all the famines they have over there".

"Reading and writing was considered a waste of time in most of Latin America, particularly if there was a TV to be watched," he writes, having been in the country for just a matter of weeks.

One Irish priest, given the pseudonym Fr Pat, visits him regularly in the absence of any support from the Irish authorities.

This priest arranges for him to get medical treatment after he contracts a virus. It's work the clergy is well used to.

The Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, established by the Catholic bishops in 1985, estimates that at any given time, between 800 and 1,000 Irish people are in prisons in 20 countries.

Paul Keany makes himself a promise that he would make parole and return to Ireland. How he does is described in great detail, but do we really care?

His motivations for agreeing to be a drug mule are unclear. To whom did he owe money in Ireland? Was his life in danger?

Did he think that cocaine in a suitcase wasn't going to be spotted? You suspect it was greed that got him on to that plane.

If unremitting misery is what you're after, this book is for you. But it's not a tale of redemption, of good men being caught in bad places.

It's a story about how a hapless, middle-aged man thought that smuggling cocaine would yield an easy buck, and how wrong he was.

He admits what he did was wrong, but says the punishment did not fit the crime. At least he survived. The country's cemeteries are littered with dead drug addicts.

"I deserved it, you say," he concludes. "Drugs are bad and anyone involved with them should be locked up and have to suffer. I accept that. But I was locked up in a cruel, violent world where I was abused, dehumanised, stabbed, had to dodge bullets and nearly lost my life. No one deserves that, I say."

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