Banged up Abroad

banged up abroad
colombia (4/4)

Concluding tonight is the drama-documentary series that tells the gripping real-life stories of travellers who find themselves detained overseas. In the last programme of the series, American martial-arts teacher and bike enthusiast Glen Heggstad recounts his experience of being kidnapped by rebels in the jungles of Colombia.

In October 2001, Glen Heggstad of Palm Springs, California, set out on a road trip he would never forget. Bored by the predictability of his life, he decided to seek adventure by riding a motorcycle to the tip of South America. Glen began by making steady progress through Central America, before catching a plane to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, to continue his journey.

Glen was aware that parts of Colombia – then regarded the “kidnap capital of the world” – were no-go areas under the control of rebels and drug smugglers. He sought advice from locals before undertaking a “road test” in the northwestern part of the country. Soon after leaving Bogotá, Glen was struck by the emptiness of his surroundings. “There’s no people, there’s no traffic, there’s really nothing out there and that starts to get spooky,” Glen says, recounting his story on camera.

Before long, Glen’s worst fears were realised when he encountered a minibus held at gunpoint by a gang. Soon the gang switched their attention to Glen, who at first thought he was being robbed, before the leader of the group ordered him to accompany them. “I just flat-out refused to go with them,” Glen explains. His resistance was met with a gun in his face. Glen hovered on the brink of death before his captors fired the weapon in the air and marched him off into the jungle.

With his limited Spanish, Glen discovered the identity of the gang. “I was already in about the worst situation I could imagine when they said ‘ELN’ – then I knew it was a rebel group,” he says. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional –or National Liberation Army –is a Marxist group inspired by the Cuban revolution and has waged war on the Colombian government since the 1960s.

The ELN commander interrogated Glen for details about his family, desperate to learn how much money his hostage could raise in a ransom. Glen, meanwhile, was equally determined to deny his value. “I didn’t want them to know I had a family,” he says. “I wanted to convince him I was worthless.” Glen was forced to make long daily marches through the jungle while the gang continued their barrage of questions. In a bid to convince them that he was of no value to their cause, Glen invented the story that he had prostate cancer and had little time to live.

After three weeks in captivity, Glen received a ray of hope when he befriended a new recruit named Anna, who insisted that the ELN movement was peaceful. “She seemed like she was so idealistic – she didn’t realise that this was war,” Glen recalls. At length Anna assured him that he would be released – only for the gang to turn against her. She disappeared and Glen never saw her again.

All the while, the soldiers continued to torment Glen by making him believe that he was about to be rescued by the Red Cross. When he saw that this was a cruel trick, he fell upon his last available option. “The only way to take control was to sabotage my own health,” he says. Glen – already in a parlous condition – began to refuse food and medicine. Finally, he resorted to making himself bleed to make it seem that his cancer was worsening. This radical move alarmed his captors – but would it be enough to secure his release?

banged up abroad
nepal (3/4)

Continuing tonight is the drama-documentary series that tells the gripping real-life stories of young travellers who find themselves incarcerated overseas. This programme focuses on the story of journalist and former magazine editor Piers Hernu, whose thirst for adventure landed him in a Nepalese jail for gold-smuggling.

In 1992 Piers Hernu was living the fast-paced and wealthy lifestyle of a city trader. The money was good, but the stress sent Piers into a year-long bout of clinical depression. Piers decided to go travelling around South-East Asia, and tasted the escapism he wanted. “It had all the elements of a sort of dream-like existence for a young man who wanted to get stuck into a few adventures,” says Piers. “And that’s what I ended up doing.”

After six months, Piers arrived in Hong Kong to find work. He became friends with Oz, an Australian who was staying in the hostel, and Rhett, a loud, brash American who said that he supplemented his own income with a little goldsmuggling into Nepal and wondered if they wanted in. It paid well, but sounded risky.

However, the pair’s doubts faded when Rhett returned from a mysterious weekend with $2,000 in cash. The prospect of what sounded like easy money was too tempting to resist, and they agreed to accompany Rhett and a fourth man, Eric, on the next run to Nepal.

Rhett took everyone to meet two Nepalese gangsters in Chungking Mansions, a notorious tower block where, says Piers, “dodgy deals could be done and no questions would be asked.” They were shown a multi-pocketed denim waistcoat containing $400,000 in gold bars – weighing over 56 pounds. The four men were to wear these on a flight to Kathmandu, where they would easily get past paid-off customs officials and hand over the gold. Piers wavered, but ultimately agreed. “It became me wanting to prove that I could do something as dangerous and as stupid as that,” he explains.

On the day, Piers, Rhett, Oz and Eric got through check-in and met their contact. Each was fitted with a gold-filled waistcoat – which felt a lot heavier this time round. The four men were actually carrying nearly 250 pounds of gold between them, worth $1.6 million.

A nasty surprise was waiting at Kathmandu: the paid-off customs official was not there. The foursome panicked, but the replacement official still let Rhett and Oz through. Suddenly, Eric and Piers were apprehended, tested with a metal detector and shoved into a side room. Rhett and Oz were then dragged in by armed police, and the huge haul of gold removed from their pockets.

The men were made to sign documents in Nepalese before being handcuffed and driven to a prison. They hoped that they were merely being held before deportation – but a hearing the next day at the airport’s ‘Customs Court’ saw them sentenced to four years each. With their only other option to pay the value of the gold as a fine, Piers and his shell-shocked friends were taken to jail to begin serving their sentence.

A few days later, an American visited Rhett and told him that he knew people who could help – they were bound to be released soon. But as the days turned into months, it became clear that they were being strung along. It then emerged that they had now passed the three-month deadline to appeal their sentence – and faced a further three and a half years in prison.

Piers and his friends now had to explore other ways of getting out – and their chance came when Piers enlisted the help of Tony, his uncle. Tony discovered that the King pardoned certain prisoners every year on his birthday, and the four men set about writing letters in the hopes of being considered. And in the meantime, Tony’s digging uncovered the sinister reason why the operation had gone so badly wrong –it was a set-up.

banged up abroad
peru (2/4)

Continuing tonight is the four-part drama documentary series that tells the gripping real-life stories of young travellers who find themselves incarcerated overseas. This programme focuses on two American teenagers who were sentenced to ten years in a Peruvian prison after being caught attempting to smuggle cocaine back into the US.

Krista Barnes and Jennifer Davies worked together as hostesses on the Hollywood nightclub scene, where late nights, celebrity friends and fun were all in a day’s work. “We were living a pretty nice lifestyle,” says Krista. When Jose, an old friend of Krista’s asked the two girls to move into his swanky beachside house with him, they quickly agreed.

Soon afterwards, two of Jose’s Peruvian friends, Angelo and Lucio, asked to speak to Jennifer and Krista. They offered the girls a fun-filled, all-expenses paid trip to the beautiful country of Peru, on the condition that they carry “a little bit of cocaine” with their luggage. The girls were assured that the drugs would be sewn into the seams of their bags so that they would be untraceable.

Both girls had always wanted to travel so agreed to the plan. “We had nothing to lose,” recalls Jennifer. “I was 19 –I felt like I was invincible.” However, soon after they boarded the plane, they began to regret their decision.

Upon landing in Lima, Krista and Jennifer saw that it was not as beautiful as they had hoped. They were met by two men who offered to drive them to their hotel, but things took a nasty turn when the car doors slammed shut. The men –who the girls realised were armed with guns –demanded their passports, then drove them to a hotel miles away from anything except a dirt road and some farm land. Having taken their bags to hide the drugs, the men left Krista and Jennifer alone for two days – they had no money, could not speak Spanish and were terrified. “We were not on vacation,” remembers Jennifer. “We were prisoners already”.

After nine days of unease, the girls were driven back to the airport, which was now swarming with dogs and armed police. A customs officer asked them several questions about their holiday, before taking them to a secluded room where it took another officer less than a minute to find the drugs in their luggage. The girls then sat and watched for 45 minutes as officials carefully took their bags completely apart, revealing 8.8 kg of pure cocaine. An officer opened the curtains of the room, showed the girls their plane and made them watch as it took off without them. “That’s when we broke down and realised we weren’t going home,” says Krista.

They were handcuffed, driven to a temporary jail and left there for 15 days without food, water or showers. “We contemplated ending our lives but we couldn’t figure out how to do it at the same time,” recalls a tearful Krista. The girls were then transferred to Chorrillos prison where the conditions were deplorable. Looking more like a bomb shelter than a typical US prison, there were up to 30 women sharing each small room. The food was covered in cockroaches and the water undrinkable, and the girls were constantly afraid of being assaulted by the male guards. They were cut off from the outside world in a place where they could not speak the language.

They decided to cooperate with the authorities and plead guilty, offering descriptions of the men they had dealt with, which eventually led to the arrests of two of the gang members. The girls were sentenced to ten years at Chorrillos, but they eventually served two years and ten months.

Today, eight years after the girls’ ordeal ended, Krista returns to Peru to revisit Chorrillos prison. Now that she is a mature, completely changed women, how will she react to seeing the site of her incarceration once more? What old memories will the experience provoke? And what lessons have Krista and Jennifer learned from their time spent banged up abroad?

banged up abroad
venezuela (1/4)

Returning tonight for a second run is this four-part drama-documentary series telling the gripping real-life stories of young travellers who find themselves incarcerated overseas. The series begins with the cautionary tale of Leicester teenagers Jim and Paul, who spent four and a half years in Venezuela’s notorious penal system after attempting to smuggle cocaine.

In 1996, friends James and Paul were bored of life in Leicester and desperate for something exciting to happen. “I wanted a challenge; I wanted some adventure,” remembers Paul. “I wanted to go and see a bit of the world.” When they bumped into an old friend who had apparently come by a lot of money, they got their chance. If they wanted what he had, said the friend, he knew a guy who could help them get it.

The friend introduced the pair to a mysterious Russian man who had a proposal for them. If they went to Venezuela to collect a package of drugs for him, he would pay them $8,000 each, put them up in a luxury hotel and give them some spending money. All they had to do was meet their contact, collect the drugs and come back – and everyone at the airport would be paid off, so there would be “no way” they could get caught. James and Paul thought they were on to a sure thing. “We were gullible children,” admits James.

With the Russian anxious to get things moving quickly, James and Paul were off to Venezuela within a week. When they landed in Caracas, they felt like they were going on holiday. But they soon realised what they were into when they met their armed contact and were measured for the bulletproof vests which would carry the cocaine.

On the day James and Paul were due to fly out, they were driven to a shack in the shanty towns of Caracas and sewn into the vests, which were filled with far more cocaine than they had been told they would be carrying. Packed off to Maiquetía airport in a taxi, they were gripped by paranoia and thought it was obvious that everyone knew what they were doing.

Things seemed to be looking up when Paul and James got through immigration without any trouble – but while they were waiting for their flight to be called, James started to believe that they were being watched. His suspicions were confirmed when the pair were stopped as they attempted to board the plane. They were taken to a small room, where the 22 pounds of cocaine were discovered. “That’s when it started to sink in,” says James. “We’re not getting out of here, are we?”

Paul and James were then taken to La Vega police station, which was filled with the sounds of violent uproar in the cells. They were there for eight months before they were sentenced to four years – and were not even present at their own trial. At the request of the British government, they were kept at La Vega instead of being sent to a state prison, for their own protection, but they knew they were still in enormous danger.

After two and a half years in La Vega, James and Paul were transferred to a state prison. Here, prisoners killing each other was a common occurrence; drugs, guns and grenades were everywhere; and the boys began to doubt that they would ever see home again. And, after serving three and a half years, the boys were stunned to hear that they were now expected to serve a ten-year sentence.

Astonishingly, James and Paul were later granted day-release – on the condition that they got jobs and returned to the prison each night until 2007. However, they decided that there was no way they could ever go back – and began to plan their escape from Venezuela. But with no money, and the knowledge that they would go back to jail if caught, it was not going to be easy…

banged up abroad

Coming soon to Five is a new series of four programmes telling the true stories of travellers whose trips to paradise turn into a nightmare when they find themselves locked up in a foreign land.

The first episode recounts the cautionary tale of Jim and Paul, two teenagers from Leicester who thought that an offer to smuggle drugs from Venezuela would lead them to a life of riches and glamour. To begin with, they seem to be on the adventure of a lifetime, enjoying plush hotels and a glamorous lifestyle in Venezuela –paid for by their ‘employers’. But as the time approaches for them to receive the drugs and come home, they worry about the deal they have made.

Although Jim and Paul were assured that the airport authorities had been bribed and there was no threat of being caught, their worst fears are realised when officials discover their vests are packed with huge quantities of cocaine. The two friends are dispatched to one of the most notorious prisons in Venezuela, where they spend the next four and a half years in a living nightmare –pushing them to the brink of insanity.

It is only when the pair are given the chance of day release –on the condition that they return to prison at night –that they make the bold decision to escape.

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1