By Joe Plumb - Honorary British Consul, Iquitos, Peru
On Friday 12th April 2013 just before 10am, a strange sight indeed at San Jacinto Prison, Iquitos! Three Englishmen-Honorary British Consul in Iquitos, Joe Plumb, David Thomson and the editor of the "Iquitos Times" Michael Collis (in long trousers so it must have been a very special occasion) , banged on the huge steel main door of the prison and demanded to be allowed access.
Happily we all three walked out again three hours later.
The motive of our visit was to watch the final three matches and then present the Cup and Winner's Prize of 100 nuevo soles in the "Copa Britannica", (the British Cup), a five-a-side tournament which was inspired by the friendship we have with Hector, an inmate who, we hope, is shortly coming to the end of his stay in prison.
Over four consecutive Sundays 25 teams had been accumulating points in a Prison League until we were left with the four semi-finalists who played each other in what was a show of rapid, dynamic, full-blooded "fulbito" between men from 20yrs to 60yrs of age, deprived of their liberty mainly for crimes such as petty theft, handling and trafficking drugs and other crimes, mainly of a non-aggressive nature.
It's not pleasant in San Jacinto Prison. It's hot, sweaty, unsanitary and no-one lends anyone a penny. You have to show you're tough to survive and any sign of weakness is pounced upon and exploited.
Even though we were going into the prison of our own free wills and to perform a charitable act we had to apply in writing to the Director of the Prison in order to get permission to take a camera in and the guidance we received was "no belts, no mobile phones, no wallets, keys or money"
On admittance to the penitential institution the three slightly-disgruntled Brits were unceremoniously given a pat-down. I was first into the cabin and suggested to the guard to make the chap following me (Mike) strip down to his Y-fronts as he might have a concealed weapon! Comments on a post-card to...
Embarrassingly, all Mike had concealed was a highly-dubious purple furry pouch with the prize money in it and a dodgy story about his ex-wife's teeth! I must remember to pick up a wallet for him, but it would probably get as dust-covered as his long trousers were, it'd get aired so infrequently!
Joking aside, we passed through four sets of heavy wrought-iron railings/bolted and padlocked-doors. Guards carry batons and guns, spray canisters and there are sniffer-dogs behind every door. We entered a communal area where men were bathing themselves, washing and drying their clothes, food was being cooked, a workshop on How-To-Make-Artisan-Handicrafts was taking place and the inmates were stood around chatting, telling jokes, gently chiding each other, basically making the time pass any way they could.
Despite the high-security our presence was obviously a welcome break from the usual routine and we were asked questions about who we were, why we'd chosen to help the inmates and when we'd be returning to visit again. We were made to feel very welcome and the atmosphere during the whole visit was one of relaxed curiosity and general festivity.
The whole of Pavilion 1 joined in-with around 150 inmates actually making up teams, others who participated as referees, an organizing committee who organized the draw, kept score, team coaches, even a first-aid man on hand to massage any knocks or strained muscles.
The tournament was coordinated between the representatives of the British community in Iquitos and the Director of the San Jacinto Penitentiary, Dr. Rafael Villa Verde, based on a mutual desire to allow the men the opportunity to participate together and work as a team, give them a prize to aim for, and to have some fun and let off steam.
Between Mike (better known to many as "Mad Mick") who made a donation of footballs and got the prize money together, and Joe who donated an almost-1metre high Cup from the Honorary British Consulate in Iquitos, the event was not costly to organize but was certainly worthwhile and carried out with a lot of good-natured rivalry and friendly banter.
Starting at 10am, the two semi-finals were played consecutively and resulted in a 1-0 victory to Team 1-2 against Team 1-12 and a 3:2 win by Team 2-6 over Team 1-9.
So in the Final it was Team 1-2 versus Team 2-6 and the final result was a 4-1 win by the winners of the first semi-final, Team 1-2. lead by...our friend, Hector!
Special Thanks to Head of Security, Tecnico Ernesto Ayala Cotrila, the Prison Lawyer, Dr. Pizarro and our personal bodyguard, Tecnico Carlos Morales from Chiclayo, who kept watch over us for the morning.
The winning team was made up of: Angél Alvarado Quiroz, Joaquín Freitas Sangama, Sandro García Amasifuen, Hector del Águila Amasifuen, Edén Carrión Quispe, José Peña Calampa, Guillermo Collao Villanueva and Federico Torres Gutiérrez.
We hope to repeat this event next year with a larger Winner's Prize or donation to improve the prison facilities and if possible we'd like to make it an annual event.
We invite other foreign nationals resident in Iquitos-whether British, US citizens, French, German, Australina, Italian, Canadian, whatever your nationality, if you live in Iquitos and feel grateful for it's hot, tropical embrace, to jump on board and assist, in whatever way you are able, with these small, uncomplicated gestures, along with "Project Navidad"-Christmas presents for Poor Children, and other such actions, which help to show us foreigners in a good light and are a small way of showing our integration into and gratitude toward, this City and Region which we've come to call "home".
We know that the legal process and justice system here in Peru is unwieldy and tedious. In Peru's prisons there is a broad mixture of guilty and innocent women and men, awaiting trial for years at a time, people of or implicated in a crime whose lawyers are not lifting a finger until they're paid to do so, as well as the reality of a lot of people charged with crimes who are not in prison but on suspended sentences due to lack of space in the prisons.
That's not really the interest of the small group of British nationals who decided to get involved and organize this sporting event. We don't really feel that it's within our competence to make judgements or decisions about whether someone is guilty or not. Bringing a bit of joy and fun to the lives of over 900 men deprived of their liberty was the aim of our sporting event and that was within our ability.
As we awarded the "Copa Britannica" to the football champions and 12 'o' clock loomed, ever-loyal to our British roots, there was more than one reference to it being "it’s nearly beer O’clock". As we left "San Jacinto" prison, I observed to David and Michael that it was as good a feeling to walk out as it had been to go in and see the prisoners.
Maybe I'm just saying this as Honorary Consul, (sub-text: "Stay out of trouble, lads") but for me, one very definite lesson from our visit is that it's better to stay on the right side of the law in Peru because the other option is not an attractive one.
I feel proud of what we'd done with the inauguration of the "Copa Britannica" and I think we do ourselves and our great country credit by conceiving of the idea. Let's hope we continue to forge links of simple friendship and collaboration to make our society in Iquitos and in Peru more humane and to show how we British contribute positively to the communities in which we live.
By Joe Plumb
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