BOGOTA – Rodrigo Cariñana, a 77-year-old currently housed in the foreigners’ wing of the Colombian capital’s La Modelo prison, became the oldest Spaniard behind bars in Latin America after being arrested for drug smuggling at Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport.
Known by the prison-service guards as “El Viejito” (Old Timer), Cariñana is having to make do with clothes lent to him by other detainees – a green sweater and overly baggy blue jeans – since his belongings are still at the airport.
All eyes are on this elderly La Modelo inmate because of his advanced age and vertigo, a condition that makes it difficult for him to walk without leaning against a wall.
The odyssey of this native of the eastern Spanish city of Valencia began a year ago, when his wife left him after 54 years of marriage.
Finding himself homeless and adrift and facing mounting debts, he made the risky decision to become a drug mule, a person who carries a small quantity of illicit substances on or in his/her body to evade detection by immigration authorities or the police.
“I’m here for carrying drugs in my suitcase. I was so hard up for money after my wife left me. They took half of my pension and left me with just 300 euros ($334),” a tearful Cariñana told EFE.
A few years ago in a neighborhood near Valencia’s port, the elderly Spaniard struck up a friendship with a Colombian man that would change his life.
When his “supposed friend” found that Cariñana was in debt, he introduced him to a Colombian couple who offered him between 4,000 and 5,000 euros to work as a drug mule.
The Colombians met with the Spaniard on three occasions and finally convinced him to work the “cocaine route.”
Cariñana said the couple deceived him by making it seem that even if he were caught, the punishment under Colombian law would not be prison time.
“They also told me that if something happened to me, they would take care of me, that they would pay me a bonus. I didn’t believe it, but I accepted,” he added.
With his plane tickets paid for and a belief that he would elude detection, Cariñana boarded a flight on Aug. 23 for Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine.
He stayed for three days in a five-star hotel in Bogota and then left for Palmira, a city in the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca, where he remained for 10 days before embarking on his return journey to Spain.
Before his arrest, he spent a week and a half at a finca (country house) with a woman and her two children. A man who never removed his helmet arrived by motorcycle every day to bring them food and later gave Cariñana a drug-filled suitcase.
A dog at the airport in Bogota smelled the drugs and alerted the police, who opened the suitcase and found the cocaine inside. Cariñana said they did not handcuff him, apparently because they felt pity for an elderly man working as a drug courier.
Cariñana said he was extremely anguished during his first week behind bars because he has taken medication for hypertension for the past 15 years.
Noting that he has suffered ups and downs from the medicine administered to him in Bogota, Cariñana said he is not afraid of dying but is worried that he could end up “half-paralyzed.”
A lump forms in his throat as he ponders the future.
“I don’t have a future anymore. After this, I won’t go back to my neighborhood, where I lived for 50 years,” Cariñana said.
“I know I’m to blame, but I hope the Spanish government takes into account my age in getting me repatriated as soon as possible. If not, I won’t set foot in Spain ever again. I’ll die here,” he added.