Rex Broekman of The Huaraz Telegraph visited Victor Perez Liendo prison in Huaraz to interview Lewis Charles Cornelius, a 51-year-old South African inmate. The following article was published in two parts from the July 2012 and April 2013 editions of the Huaraz newspaper.
At 9 AM I met the Tourist Police to accompany me into the penitentiary. Despite having read Marching Powder and being a fan of prison movies, I had no clue what to expect. I was excited but nervous. Could I get in with my camera? Would the guards let me have the interview and would the gringo be willing to meet me? Huaraz Telegraph contributor Trevor and I brought fruit, cookies, snacks and drinks, common things to bring to inmates. Hopefully the foreigner would be happy to tell his story.
When we arrived at the Huaraz prison near Rosas Pampa Stadium, we found a long line of visitors waiting to see their family and friends. From the outside, it didn’t look like a modern prison. Visitors can only see male convicts on Sundays. Female convicts receive visitors on Wednesdays.
Unfortunately we had to leave our camera, cell phones, and other electronic devices with the guards. Our tourist police escort had to leave his gun and bullets as well.
When we went in, we had to register and leave our passports. Then we were searched individually by another guard. After I was cleared to enter, Trevor was denied because of a visit to Sierra Andina and X-treme Bar the night before, as he was still intoxicated. I was on my own.
Once inside, I was brought to one of those places where you speak to prisoners through a fence. The guards told me they would call the South African, and Lewis Charles Cornelius appeared. I thought he’d at least be behind the fence, but he was on the same side. Could he stab, hit, or touch me? Yes, he could.
Lewis introduced himself and asked why I was there. I told him about the newspaper and asked him to tell his story. I gave him the food from the market.
“Sure, no problem,” Lewis said. Lewis was happy with my visit and started talking, full of energy. I asked him why he was in the Huaraz prison. He replied that he had been incarcerated since October 2005 after being caught in Lima‘s Jorge Chavez International Airport with 17 kilos of raw cocaine.
Lewis claims he was asked to check in someone else’s bag on a flight to South Africa. He didn’t inspect it before trying to pass airport security, who found 17 kilos of cocaine. “I got 12 years and six months sentenced with benefits but on the 9th of October 2009, I was transferred to Huaraz without any reason I am aware of. Here in Huaraz I lost all the benefits I had before in Lima (Callao) because I appealed my sentence four times. I have lost the ‘2-9-6’ . Now I am HIV positive. I receive treatment and I am staying in the Topico hospital section," Lewis added.
Lewis went on: "After three years, my wife stopped sending me letters. I thought that this was rare, but then I found out that she had been caught with drugs in Bolivia, three years after me. I assure you man, she was not trafficking but she's still in prison. I am not married Rex but I love the woman I call my wife very much. We have eight children together and I'm almost 52. I wouldn’t lie to you at this stage; I hope to get out soon."
I asked Lewis if he gets outside help. "Nothing man! When I come out one day, I will for sure sue my embassy. I used to have communication with my wife and children but [the South African Embassy] haven’t visited me once. They make promises, like Peruvians here, but never fulfill them. Two years ago an inmate spoke to my embassy and heard that they would visit my wife in Bolivia. It's compulsory! But they haven’t visited me once in Huaraz. They must think it's too far from Lima. They not only neglect my human rights here, but also rob my personal items. My wife sent me a Bible once but it never arrived. My wife must be thinking why I don't accept her things but I never even see them. I get only one visitor every now and then."
I asked Lewis about his contact with the other inmates. "I get discriminated against a lot here. Not just by inmates, but especially by the guards. They hate South Africans. They like to demonstrate their power. We get beaten for nothing. Sometimes we have to sit on our knees and if we move one muscle, we get hit. They hit us to make an example. 'Pachas' was an inmate in the hospital for two weeks until he died. Eight of us were mistreated badly but only Pachas was sent to the hospital."
Lewis showed me a big scar on his chest and continued, "When I and seven others were hit, all the inmates decided to have a hunger strike. But when Human Rights visited us, nothing changed. I live without fear, I am not scared. I am getting older but I still know how to defend myself because of some martial arts I practiced in the past. But luckily most inmates respect me. I don't have much contact with them as I was transferred out of the heavily secured section into the infirmary. Things are quieter here."
I asked about the food. "Not too bad. We get soup, olives, bread, and some Quaker oats in the morning. We can buy stuff here but you have to have money."
Does he get any news from the outside? "A little bit. There's a pavilion with a television and we hear when new inmates are brought in."
How are the prison cell conditions and what does your day look like? "There is a hole in every cell for a toilet, and in 'Maximum' two people stay in one cell, sharing a bunk bed. In other parts of the prison, inmates have to share a cell with sometimes more than ten others. You'd probably say it's really dirty. When we wake up, we wash ourselves, then have breakfast and read newspapers. It's difficult when you don't have money. No money in prison means life has no value."
How does he make money? "I don’t! Sometimes lawyers visiting the inmates give me a couple soles. There was one fat but friendly lawyer who used to help me out with small cash but he passed away unfortunately. If you have money here, you're king. There are shops in jail run by convicts. It's expensive to buy something. A box of milk is five soles for example [three in supermarkets]. You can even buy razors at those shops." I thought to myself, he must be short on cash because of his beard.
Has he ever considered suicide? "Yes, on many occasions but I have eight children and a wife you know. I believe in God and believe He has saved me a spot in heaven."
Are there many sexual violations and rapes? "The Bible says that relations between man and man or woman and woman are wrong. However, I have no opinion about that. They have to do whatever they want. I don’t have it in me. I consider myself a helper, not a violator. In the past I was a millionaire you know. I was running a diamond digging company but three family businesses went down the drain - all because of trusting the wrong people. Now I am broke and need 15,000 soles to get out. I am trying to contact Prisoners Abroad, which is an English organization, but you don’t need to be an Englishman to get help. Maybe you or your readers can help me with that. I just need someone to send the message."
I asked how Lewis contracted the HIV virus. "Needles man, needles. When my wife stopped sending letters or when people kept them from me, I started to use drugs back in the Callao prison. Now I have to take pills every day, but other inmates here get twice the pills. I feel discriminated against. There is alcohol and drugs abuse here as well. They make every sort of alcohol here, from potatoes, rice, and even tomatoes. I think 85% of the inmates use drugs."
Does he use drugs? "No, I have been clean for more than two years. I have to take care of myself having AIDS. When you lose weight because of diarrhea with AIDS, you will never gain the same weight as before. Finally, you will die because of being underweight. You cannot get out of bed anymore. You have no energy. You can eat as much as you want but won’t gain weight ever again."
When leaving Lewis asked if I could send my story to Gringo Karl and Katty Portela, AKA 'La Flor de Huaraz'. Lewis claims he befriended Karl when they were both locked up in Callao.
According to a guard, there were 596 men and 40 women incarcerated at the Huaraz prison. Some were sentenced for stealing food and just had to spend one night, others served much longer sentences for murder. Lewis Charles Cornelius is set to be released in 2017. He can be visited on Sundays and would greatly appreciate small amounts of money, food, or useful materials like old clothes or soap.
Rex's 2nd Visit to the Huaraz Prison - one year later
I packed some old sneakers, a baseball cap, a body warmer, a jacket, and many t-shirts. This time I know not to take any food because last time Lewis mentioned he'd rather have soap, shampoo, or new shoes.
I imagined how Lewis would be, whether the HIV virus had taken its toll on his body. Had he read his story in the paper? And if so, what did he think? Had the article encouraged people to visit or write? Maybe he'd been transferred to another prison, or the authorities didn't like my story and wouldn't let me see him again.
When I arrived at the prison I noticed a sign saying (in Spanish): "To enter the prison, bring your DNI" (Peruvian identity card).
Damn, I forgot! I explained to the guard that I had forgotten my ID, but I was only visiting the Tópico, the infirmary. The guard called his supervisor, who I recognized from the first time I visited. I asked if he could make an exception, and he agreed.
I had to leave my voice recorder and key chain. I didn't bring my cell phone, which is also prohibited. The guards had seen the previous editions of The Huaraz Telegraph and were curious about our interviews. The guard checking the clothes I brought for Lewis said I couldn't take the shoes into the prison because he wanted them! I scowled and he relented.
After a body search, I passed though to the inner courtyard where I had previously interviewed Lewis. Then I heard him shout from a short distance, "Rex Broekman, how nice to see you!"
Lewis had been trying to sell chewing gum to visitors near the entrance patio. He hadn’t changed at all, immediately starting to talk and wore his heart on his sleeve. I handed him the bag of clothes. He was most happy with the two pairs of shoes. I also gave him two editions of The Huaraz Telegraph. He smiled and said, "Excellent, I was hoping for this."
I asked him if I could see his cell and have our interview there. While walking, I noticed Lewis commanded respect in the prison. I was offered chewing gum, sweets, and other stuff by other inmates. But when Lewis told them off they left. We went through two steel-chained doors to the infirmary. On my left I noticed a big, smoky kitchen with huge pots on the floor; they were preparing the meals for the jailbirds.
Then there was another door to get to his cell. At the end of the hall there was a tiled shower. I was impressed, the water was probably cold but it didn’t look as bad as I’d expected. Lewis took a right turn and we arrived at his cell. Lewis put the bag of clothes on his bed and asked me to sit. His cellmates were surprised at my arrival and came to shake hands.
Lewis asked if I knew Erica. Erica was a young lady from South Africa who visited Lewis after reading my story. He spoke eagerly of her visit. He said, "I am actually a bit worried, Rex, because I haven’t heard from her again. She told me that she had to leave the country and would go north and then come back, but she hasn't." It became apparent that I was Lewis’s first visitor in over two months.
Lewis wanted to share some things with The Huaraz Telegraph that he held back last time. He showed me documents from his trial and subsequent sentence in 2006. Among the documents was a psychological report describing Lewis' behavior and conduct.
According to this document, Lewis was born on August 1, 1960, and has eight children. More, translated from Spanish: “He is a fair-skinned adult with brown hair and his personality is defined as that of a normal person and constitution. He is approximately 1.75 m tall with three tattoos – one on his left shoulder, another on his left hand, and a third on his chest. Furthermore, he has one scar on his right hand from a motor accident." Lewis declares in this document that his parents have passed away and that he is the youngest of twelve children. In addition, the document states that Lewis is "cooperating well to questions, thinking them over before answering in simple Spanish."
Lewis' first psychological interview took place in June 2010, and has had no less than 106 sessions since. Lewis "shows responsibility, punctuality, and discipline" at those sessions. The document concludes that Lewis "has no signs of being a psychopath and that the likelihood of social reinsertion is high," and that this psychological test "recommends he receive requested benefits."
Lewis reminds me, "Look, as I told you before on your first visit, I got sentenced 2-9-6, which means I can apply for parole. Instead I was transferred to Huaraz and lost the benefits. The officials here claim I'm under the 2-9-7 sentence, which doesn't allow conditional release. As I have done half of my sentence, I should be released but no one wants to hear my case. I would have been out already if I had someone on the outside!"
Lewis said he had been beaten by eight or nine guards. Those guards' full names are listed in his complaint. "I was abused on the 23rd of October last year and after 20 days the prosecutor came with cameras for an interview and a small investigation. Where the hell are you going to find marks after 20 days? It was unbelievable!"
Then Lewis showed me a hand written declaration of his intention to go on another hunger strike. "That guy there in the corner, wearing that bleached jogging suit, is sexually abusing that old man there. He lifts him up and throws him on the floor, the rest you can imagine. Two months ago he cruelly removed a toenail from his right foot. I try to keep things clean here in Tópico. I have even got [personnel] to give us soap and antibacterial liquids so we can disinfect the place. It's a prison but also an infirmary, you know?" Lewis fumes when he talks about the guards.
"Gestapo, that’s what they are, pieces of shit. They treat me like an animal. When beating me they say things like: ‘Hit the dog’. Nine against one, they beat me for fun. Now I have respect, but I fought for it. They know I have HIV and I can take their lives."
Lewis then told me a delegation from his embassy visited in August. "I could hardly speak to them. The main guy was Moheng Motlhale and he was accompanied by two others. It took the bastards 30 months to see me and the warden ruined it all. He filled his office with nurses saying there was no place where we could meet. Then when they arrived the second time I got a called to the warden's office. He said we only had five minutes because the warden had to leave. He's just trying to dodge them because my rights are being violated. The white guy from the embassy noticed it luckily and said they'd come back, but you're the first visitor since Christmas and they should have been here two weeks ago."
I asked Lewis what he would do when he is released. "I am trying to improve my Spanish so I can work here in Peru in the tourist industry. But I have heard they'll put me on a plane to South Africa, and I may never be able to come back to Peru. Although there are also rumors that this might not be the case. Maybe I can work at an airport!"
I replied, "Of course, you're a specialist after all!" He laughed and I looked around his cell. I counted seven beds, but Lewis stated that there were actually eight cellmates. Three had HIV and another had a non-infectious strand of tuberculosis. One of the eight was a 92-year-old serving a 14 year sentence for abusing a 7-year-old boy. There was a small stove and a black and white television.
Lewis looked healthier than he did six months ago. He said, "Because I take better care of myself. I hate the packages of carbohydrates we get served here so if possible I make some spaghetti or potatoes with vegetables. I got the head nurse transferred because she was lazy and fat. The new nurse makes sure everyone gets their medication on time. I avoid greasy food and maintain order and discipline."
He added, "I sell chewing gum to make money. Yesterday I made one sol fifty! Some inmates call me Mick Jagger and ask me to sing 'Satisfaction'."
I asked if Lewis celebrated Christmas. "Heartbreaking, to be honest. You'll see other inmates getting visits from family members but I didn't have one single visit. I am surviving because I am strong and intelligent. But remember, no matter how intelligent you are you can’t beat the corrupt system. It's all about the money."
Before saying goodbye I asked Lewis what he thought of The Huaraz Telegraph. "It's an excellent newspaper, Rex. I like to read history and I now know a lot more about the area and Peru. I knew nothing about the earthquake for example,” (referring to the 1970 Ancash Earthquake which killed over 20,000 people). "I also liked the food page like that story about your countryman, the waffleman," (referring to Dirk Wolkers' Dutch Waffles in Huaraz). "That guy must make a fortune. I also like the map of Huaraz for the tourists, good job!"
Lewis Charles Cornelius is to be released in 2017. He can be visited on Sundays and kindly requests that visitors bring a small amount of money, food, or useful things like old clothes or soap. It is safe to visit the prison, but feel free to visit the Tourist Police on the Main Square (Plaza de Armas) if you want them to accompany you.
This is a pared down version of the original articles in The Huaraz Telegraph. To read the full articles, which include official and handwritten documents from Cornelius' case, see the PDFs for the July 2012 and April 2013 editions of The Huaraz Telegraph.
Victor Perez Liendo prison in Huaraz, Peru:
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