Inside a Female Prison in Lima

In Lima’s largest women’s prison, I met up with two foreign drug mules. 

The Santa Monica women’s prison in Lima is located in the neighborhood ‘Chorrillos’ , only about a 20 minute drive from my house. I had always seen the long line of people outside the prison walls on visiting days, carrying bags of food to share with their daughter/sister/friend in prison. Before I knew what was behind those large green walls I didn’t know what to make of that group of women, all dressed in long skirts loafers or sandals.  Some carried kilos of food and others were selling snacks for those in line.

Yesterday I was one of those women.

Line outside the Santa Monica Prison in Lima. Photo by: unknown
As cameras or phones were not allowed, unfortunately I can’t provide my own images.

Apparently the skirt and sandals are obligatory for women who visit the prison. I found myself being the only one in line wearing jeans and shoes. As I didn’t own a skirt that fits the prison’s specifications I was forced to rent one in a shop nearby. I paid one Sol for the skirt and sandals and 2 Soles for them to hold my phone, keys, shoes and pants while I was in the prison.

Sunday is the female visiting day, Saturdays are for men. Luciano, a colleague and friend of mine had talked about at Australian girl who was in prison for drug trafficking. She had been caught with 17 Kilos of cocaine in her bag at the Lima airport. That was four years ago, when she was 23. She is now 27 and serving a 14 year sentence.

I waited in line for 1.5 hours and passed through all security checks; my arms were marked at every checkpoint and I finally entered the prison’s visitors terrace, which looks a lot like an improvised food court with plastic chairs, tables and parasols. Mothers were talking with their daughters and eating the food they had brought in to share. Inmates were selling gum, cake and cookies. There were several toddlers running around, kids born in the prison.

Imprisoned at 23

Without the tree and some nature in the prison, I would go crazy.

Kay Atherton wasn’t expecting me, and I paid an inmate with a shirt that said “llamadora”  or “caller” a sol to go and get her for me. Kay had reacted surprised, understandably, and she would be right down.

When she walked through the guarded metal door it was unmistakably her, she stood out with her short red hair and wore a green turtleneck. She had a colorful necklace and matching earrings and walked right up to me with a big smile. “Hey! thanks for coming!” she said as we hugged.  I told her how I found out she was here, through my colleague. She took me to a quiet corner on the terrace to sit and talk.

Find out how to support Kay Atherton here.

Like Kay’s Facebook page here.

Though Luciano had told me her story briefly, Kay gave me the complete version. An intense tale of a free spirit travelling the world while getting involved with the wrong people on the way. She recounted her past with noticeable separation. Rape, the loss of her three year old son and contracting HIV all preceded the decision that would change her life forever. Her story, she admits, would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. Kay says life is her teacher. Most people die not having suffered what she’d been through at only 23. During our conversation I stare at her in awe. I like her. She radiates a positive energy, an unexpected quality for anyone lacking something as basic as freedom.

She tells me about her artwork, and shows me a mural she made inside the prison, a mountain landscape with cacti, a rainbow and blue sky. She also sings. “It isn’t an escape or distraction” she says, “art allows me to totally experience what I’ve been through and what I am going through.” She describes it as her own personal therapy.

The terrace has a small patch of grass and an old tree in the middle. Kay tells me how relieved she was four years ago to know there was some nature inside the prison. A self-proclaimed hippie, Kay tells me  that the tree has made a big difference in her wellbeing. “Other prisons are just bare walls,  I would go crazy.”

A Dutch Inmate

Every person in here was lied to about the amount of drugs they would carry.

Kay introduced me to another inmate, Francesca. A forty-something woman from Amsterdam. She is now serving her second sentence for drug trafficking. Though we only spoke for a few minutes, she told me she wants to get her story out to prevent others from making the same mistakes she made.

Francesca describes herself as a user. Back in Holland she was addicted to a variety of hard drugs. “I mixed it all” she says. “You know how in Holland it’s not such a big deal.” When she lost her house and started living on the streets, she met a man who invited her to live with him and promised her a vacation to Peru, a country unknown to Francesca. “It’s the land where the Inca’s lived”, he told her. But there was a catch, she had to take some coke back. Francesca agreed, thinking she had nothing to lose.  Plus, she could use a holiday. She describes it as a trip where she was going to “see some indians”.  She ended up carrying way more drugs with her than she had been told. “Every single person in here (the prison) was lied to about the amount of drugs they would carry. They always say it will be less” Francesca, like Kay, is working with Amnesty International to find a way to shorten her sentence. She looks forward to seeing her three sons succeed. “To me now, that is all that matters.”

Kay tells me she would like to go back to Africa to teach. Having lost her three year old son, she feels she needs to help where the infancy mortality is highest. She is also going to publish a book she has been writing. “And now you’re in it too!” she says with a big smile.

At around 12:30 pm the guards announced the end of the first visiting hour. We exchanged information so we could keep in touch. While I had been talking to Francesca, Kay brought me back a self-made earring from her cell, similar to the colorful jewelry she was wearing. I told her I was going to return to see her again, as I felt there was little difference between us where it not for her intense past.

Read Kay’s entire story in her own words here

Or Watch this Australian News Report telling her story.

The facts

More Europeans turn to being a drug mule.

Foreigners are filling local prisons in Peru. The European economy is weak, and Peruvian authorities notice an increase in foreign drug mules the past years.

in 2011, 350 mules were arrested at Lima’s airport, with 200 of them foreign nationals, police say. Spain had the higher number of drug mules arrested in Peru in 2011 with 44, followed by the Netherlands (19), Mexico (15) and Argentina (14).

In Peruvian prisons, 1,100 foreigners, including 300 from Spain – hard hit by the economic crisis -, are currently behind bars, 90 percent of them for drug trafficking. Those found guilty of the crime face between six and 12 years in prison if operating on their own.

Kay and Francesca, both good people, made a mistake while in the most vulnerable state of their lives. Those who hired them as drug mules are still walking the streets, while these women are paying the price. The sad reality is that more often than not, drug-mules are victims. As the inmates agree, nobody chooses to become a drug-mule, they feel like they have no choice.

I highly encourage you to write Kay via her facebook page. My friend Luciano and others make sure she gets printouts of all support mail.

  1. walter said:

    Yes it right,woman in prison in lima are surfering.without help,my wife is there for two yrs now

  2. Iris said:

    wauw, heftig verhaal lor.. heb jij die foto van kay ook gemaakt? prachtig. ik hoop dat je gauw weer de kans hebt om haar te zien

    • Hey ja ik heb haar afgelopen zondag weer bezocht en ik wilde er nog over posten, want ze komt binnenkort vrij!! Ze heeft amnestie gekregen. Ben heel blij voor haar. Dus dat gaan we vieren.

      • Iris said:

        Yes wat goed nieuws! Top

  3. Robyn Atherton said:

    I am Kay’s mother and hoping to visit soon. Thank you for visiting.

    • Hi Robyn. Kay tells me she is so excited you are coming. Hope you’ll have a wonderful reunion.:)

  4. amanda said:

    Hello, I have been researching Santa Monica prison since the two girls were recently arrested as drug mules. It’s just so scary how young girls can allow themselves to get caught up in this world. I myself am from northern Ireland, same place Michaela is from and its just terrifying that they could receive the same sentence as Kay. What were they thinking? If only they had a researched where they were going and the dangers involved…. I feel for all the girls, as we all make mistakes and who are we to judge?

    • Alexander said:

      Yes I agree with your sentiments, people are too quick to judge and comments on various media sites have been nasty and inhuman, especially relating to Michaela and Melisa.
      It is a tragically sad and desperate situation for these young women and the death by suicide of the young Spanish girl, Tania Rodriquez last week was shocking.

      • john roberts said:


  5. katharine brown said:

    Hello – does anyone know if you can send donations to Mary? i would like to send a parcel of toiletteries etc to help this cause. My heart goes out to these woman and i dont think anyone understands what lengths a person will go too when they have nothing to loose and are in sheer desperation !
    thank you

  6. Steve said:

    Well Kay let’s hope your message gets through to the vulnerable and that your future life is good, certainly made me think twice, thank you

  7. babs said:

    me too id like to send a single mum of three and my eldest is nearly 17.i know i would die if something like that happened to her.shes just a baby, as those two unfortunate heart pours out to them and their families.we all did stupid things when we were kids.They were picked and groomed by predators.they should be allowed to serve their sentence in the uk at least

  8. Johnny said:

    I live in Lima and should anyone like to send stuff to me I will happily take it them just pay my taxi fare and I will do it no problems I am a British citizen and I feel for those poor girls that made a huge mistake in their lives .

  9. Marky said:

    I’m a bloke – aged 47 with teenage children. I travelled throughout Asia – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Vietnam etc 20 + years ago. I remember with great sorrow an English girl selling her body in the Calcutta (Kolkatta) hotels to support her own heroin addiction and support her boyfriend who was awaiting trial in DumDum jail on drugs charges. Whilst I have tried to reinforce the folly of drugs with my children AND they have the advantage of crossing some iffy land borders with me in Africa, it is still their decision when 18+ if they play a high risk game and become a mule. Parents – teach them, and teach them well. There are too many (guilty and innocent) people in jail.

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