Kendall’s First Day in Cali’s Villanueva Prison

This is an excerpt from Smuggler’s Diary: Cocaine Karma by Kendall X, the best book I’ve read on Colombia’s underworld. ‘Kendall’ was busted for cocaine in Cali in the 1970s and did time in various Colombian prisons, starting in Cali’s Villanueva.

This is the first of a few Smuggler’s Diary excerpts I’ll publish here because of how similar Kendall’s story is to The Mick‘s, and I’m currently pushing a Kickstarter campaign for This Mick’s Life: Addiction and Underworld from Ireland to Colombia. Kendall is an articulate writer with a clearer memory than The Mick. This passage will give you a great look at Colombian prison.

I’ll highlight two aspects before you begin: patio organization and desechables. Colombian prisons are organized into “patios” – large courts surrounded by concrete walls. One prison is comprised of several patios, which serve are basically cell blocks. Most of an inmate’s life is spent with the other inmates of his patio. But unlike cell blocks, your patio will be determined by how much money you have. There is a patio for high-level drug-dealers and white-collar criminals, there are middle-class patios, and there are less desirable patios of drug addicts and street thieves. There is further stratification within a patio, but understand that what you can pay for determines who you will do your time with.

If you’ve been in Bogota or anywhere else in Colombia for an extended time, you’ve surely seen what Colombians disparagingly call ‘desechables’ – disposables. These are the filthy street addicts who live off crime and violence to fuel their vices. Colombian prison is packed with these people, imagine! This passage has some haunting images of some of the less desirable desechables.

Here is Kendall X’s first day in Villanueva prison:

I hadn’t learned any Spanish during the one month I’d been in Patio 1. There was always someone around who spoke some English, including some Americans that had come and gone. But I mostly stayed to myself, though I hate to admit it, I’d still been waiting for Tom Rosen.

The trustee ushered me back to my bed where I immediately poured the remaining three grams of rock heroin into my pocket. Nothing could’ve prepared me for what was to come as I was led by a guard through the barred door onto the main corridor. Patio 1 was completely shielded from the rest of the prison and from the other 2,000 criminals, so I had no idea what to expect. I was dressed in slacks, fine shirt and cowboy boots as I carried my suitcase down the main corridor. I could’ve been a businessman just arriving at Cali Airport.

The main corridor led pass the other six Patios on the way to the kitchen and factories. It reminded me of a tunnel plummeting into the bowels of Hell because of the thick, solid walls that collided into the concrete ceiling twelve feet above me. I was shuttled pass the entrances to Patios 2, 3 & 4 as hoards of criminals hanging through the barred doors were yelling my name, “John, John.” Everybody in the joint had heard and read of me but nobody had seen me yet. I was rattled not expecting anybody to know who I was. The shouts and clamor weren’t threatening but I still didn’t like it.

This was my first glimpse of what Patio life was going to be like; a bunch of men crammed into a small walled area. Everybody was dressed in rags. There were no fat prisoners there; these men were hungry and it showed. Prison philosophy/policy: ‘A hungry prisoner isn’t likely to try to escape.’ Hunger was but another wall that had to be climbed before the ones of stone.

I passed the barred door entrance to Patio 5 with morbid curiosity. I’d heard many grizzly tales about this Patio; it was the deadliest there. You had to have killed another prisoner or two to get there. If a convict killed another one the prison considered a troublemaker then he was sentenced to four days in the hole (this was the maximum punishment for anything) and would be returned to his original Patio. This was the standard punishment for killing someone – never a court case. It was only two days for stabbing someone!

Punishment was never a deterrent to committing violence there. But if you killed someone and you were the troublemaker then they’d send you to Patio 5 where nobody cared if you killed another or not. Everybody in this Patio knew how to kill; it had a 50% mortality rate for stabbings whereas the other Patios had a 5%. A 5% mortality rate might sound low but that’s because most people’s idea about what this kind of death entails is gleaned from watching TV. It’s hard to kill someone in real life with a knife or broken bottle – and that’s even if the victim’s unarmed. It’s a bloody fucking ordeal also.

I was headed for the 3rd floor of the cellblock that housed Patio 5 convicts. It was called the punishment block, which shouldn’t be confused with the hole. When a convict had served his hole time and the prison didn’t know where else to put him, then he ended up in the punishment block. These prisoners were considered too dangerous to be released back into the Patios and general population. Most of them were terribly, demonically insane. Villanueva didn’t have cells to keep non-dangerous prisoners segregated from general population; they did this by placing certain prisoners into certain Patios. If you were considered an escape risk, as I was, they’d just keep closer tabs on you.

The guard guided me up to a 3rd-floor landing and delivered me to the commander there. There were four pasillos that greeted us; each led down a row of twenty cells. Each pasillo had a barred door in front to keep the animals penned in. There were between three to twelve nutters in each pasillo though these cells didn’t have doors! If you were a particularly badass bastard that reigned terror, then the horde would wait until you fell asleep. The guards would never enter these pasillos to save a convict; there was nobody there worth saving. Believe me.

desechables colombia cali villanueva smugglers diary

The commander was unbolting the barred pasillo door with his wrenches…

{Footnote: Nuts and bolts tightened with wrenches were used to lock all pasillos in Villanueva because the criminals there had picked every lock they’d tried in the past. Villanueva was the only prison I was to be in that resorted to this method of locking up prisoners. Strangely enough, the prisoners hadn’t been picking the locks to escape but had been attacking their enemies while sleeping or for thieving. There were no individual cells in the prison that were locked by the prison itself.}

as I looked at the dozen monsters I was going to be housed with – panicking big time. My knees weren’t working right. There they stood at a respectable distance from the barred door; otherwise the guard wouldn’t have opened it. There were only two of them with pants on – they were the biggest. The others were naked or wearing the filthiest underwear imaginable. I told the guard I wasn’t going in there – no fucking way. Going into that pasillo meant losing everything I had including my clothes. This was the first time in my life where I had encountered a situation where bravery would’ve been suicide. I was scared shitless. They would’ve killed me if I would’ve entered that pasillo, fearing retribution for stealing my stuff – or simply for the fun of it.

This commander lived with these creatures 24 of every 48 hours so he knew what I was going through. One pasillo had only three prisoners in it. He was being cagey; he was aware of what was in store for me. A fight for my life I was going to lose. He was playing with me; he knew who I was and thought that I had millions. I asked to be put into the pasillo where the three convicts were for which he charged me 200 pesos. I looked closely at these three and realized they were probably being segregated because they were even more dangerous than the rest of the psychopaths. I was facing the same nightmare except my death wouldn’t have been so quick. It would be impossible to describe just how dangerous these individuals were. They were the worst kind of human predators that killed and didn’t care or even know why. These were not human beings.

After some frantic negotiating and another 100 pesos, the guard moved the three nutters to another pasillo. He strip-searched me and found my stack of $100 bills, but not the smack, before rummaging through my suitcase. I then entered the pasillo and put the brown rocks back into their bottle and grabbed pen and paper scribbling a letter to the warden. He’ll surely be able to straighten out this misunderstanding.

I called over the guard and gave him the note and 50 pesos. He promised all afternoon to deliver the letter but didn’t. The next morning at shift change he gave me his word that he was going straight to the warden.

The guard taking over the shift for the next 24 hours came to my pasillo.

Buenos días, señor,” wishing me politely.

He even smiled as he produced his wrenches and started to unbolt my door.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked nervously.

He pointed to the pasillo in front of mine that I’d been threatened with the previous day. These two pasillos faced each other so I’d spent the entire day before looking at these fiendishly insane monsters glaring hatred and madness at me nonstop. They lusted after my suitcase and wanted to taste my blood. I kept going over in my head just exactly what had transpired the day before and just exactly what to do if this were to happen again. I had no idea until then that my life was so casually going to be forfeited. I concluded that I’d actually behaved correctly by refusing to enter the pasillo. I’d done so the day before from sheer terror. I’d be doing so then because it’d be my most intelligent choice. I was fighting for my existence for the first time in my life, and over what?

I offered the guard 100 pesos to remain where I was. He acted as if I’d just insulted his manhood and flatly refused the money. The guard pointed at my suitcase wanting me to follow him. I upped the ante to two hundred; he settled on three. I was green and being played with by experts. I gave him the money on the condition he’d take a note to the warden. By then we were best of friends so he’d be happy to oblige. Oh, and what else did I need? I was starved having been too scared to eat the previous 24 hours. He yelled out a barred window to the Patio 5 food shack three stories below. They eventually delivered eggs, rice and potatoes. He pocketed 35 of the 50 pesos I paid for the meal.

The guard went out to lunch swearing he’d deliver the note to the warden. He returned and stated he’d talked to a sergeant. I asked about the warden but he only shrugged. It was late afternoon when I greeted mi sargento at my pasillo door. He spoke some English and told me that the warden had received both my letters, but his hands were tied. He was under strict orders from Judge Castillo Walteros that I was to be segregated from general population and kept under constant surveillance. The judge had sent over an affidavit from F-2 about an elaborate escape plan I’d been involved in. The report had been an outrageous fabrication of the hare-brained scheme proposed to me earlier – and the judge believed and loved it. The Invisible Ones were pulling my strings and I was merely the dumb puppet.

“I have money, mi sargento,” pulling it out of my pockets. “Maybe you can talk to the warden about sending me to a Patio? I don’t care which one.”

He promised to speak with the warden but he didn’t mask the fact the talk would be fruitless. The judge didn’t trust anybody connected with the Colombian Prison System. He’d sent the warden very clear orders on how I was to be treated and housed. He’d specified that any request for me to leave the prison could only be okayed by him – and not the warden. I was to stay put in segregation and could only be moved by his direct orders.

I spent that night in the pasillo, while a dozen ghouls gawked at me with eyes devoid of life realizing: My life changed tonight. There are events in all of our lives when we can say, “Before this happened, I was this kind of a person. Now I’m not.” Be it good or bad. It was definitely for the better in my case. I’d gone through a horrific ordeal while caged in a toilet at F-2, but I’d arrived at Villanueva untainted – still your Fun-Loving-Hippie-Cocaine-Smuggler-On-The-Run-Nice-Guy. I began erasing most of my old useless values and replacing them with ones that worked. Peace and love, respect for one’s fellow human beings and caring about others flew out the barred windows that night.

The guard the next morning was in a particularly cheery mood. He joked about how scared I’d looked when he’d started to open the pasillo door that first day. He did a great imitation of me standing there wide-eyed, knees shaking and not being able to move. He did this all in mime, punctuating every nuance of my terror with laughter. I failed to see the humor.

Communication had become my major concern. Survival and pulling off an escape meant speaking Spanish. I had an English/Spanish dictionary my so-called senator lawyer had given me in F-2, so I wrote down a question in English and tried to translate it. The guard was helping me with the translation when the sergeant came in to see me. He explained that it was extremely rare that a judge would tell the prison, much less the warden, how and where to house its prisoners. (In all fairness to Judge Castillo Walteros, he’d had no idea where I would be housed when he’d sent his order to the warden. He’d simply been reacting to a fictitious escape plan concocted by F-2 and the Invisible Ones.)

“El director understand this for you no good pero…” the sergeant sputtered, then thought for a moment. “I go talk to lieutenant maybe he do something. Maybe cost mucho dinero.”

“I don’t care how much it costs,” I blurted out in desperation.

“Better to care,” he retorted.

He returned later telling me he’d talked to a lieutenant who worked the graveyard shift that was willing to transfer me to Patio 2 during the night without anybody realizing it.

“Not even el director,” he emphasized.

Hardly. Wardens knew everything that happened in their domain; they had more spies than the CIA. So I figured the warden and sergeant had devised a scheme in which this lieutenant would order my transfer. He’d knowingly be the fall guy and would claim ignorance if any problems would arise. And he wouldn’t have to worry about being reprimanded by the warden.

The sergeant returned the next day to let me know everything would be handled at midnight. He wanted only 3,000 pesos; he could’ve charged me anything he wanted. I handed him a $100 bill and 500 pesos.

A guard came by at midnight and marched me down to Patio 2 cellblock turning me over to the commander who was just finishing my paperwork. He led me upstairs to the 2nd-floor landing where I found a very sleepy wachimán waiting for me behind a bolted pasillo door. He was a skeleton of a man who looked to be 70 though probably was in his mid-40s. His face looked as if someone had put on a tight, thin layer of skin over the Grim Reaper’s skull. His color said Indian. He was extraordinarily thin-skinned and his muscles were like taunt knotted ropes that followed his every movement. The commander unbolted the door saying a few words to the trustee.

Buy Smuggler’s Diary on Amazon. Do you like the drawings? See the Illustrations from Smuggler’s Diary album on the Expat Chronicles FB page.



  1. By the way, this was published with permission from Kendall. I implored him to raise his price from a paltry $1.99 on Kindle. He raised it to 2.99. So if you liked this excerpt, BUY THE BOOK NOW before he comes to his senses and charges what it’s truly worth – $9.99.


  2. A great read to say the least. Had a lot of laughters when he described the wachiman. As someone who’s fluent in Spanish (learned it by myself), it comes in really handy in those parts. I don’t know why smugglers and expats neglect to learn Spanish.


  3. Aren’t these peso values all out of whack?

    I have been searching for historical values of the peso.. It’s proving to be difficult, but the furthest back I could go was the early 90’s and even then the peso was worth in the thousands per US dollar.


  4. @ Rob – 30 Colombian Pesos for every 1 US Dollar. So pesos were about 60 times stronger then. Multiply quantity of pesos in Smuggler’s Diary by 60 and you have the equivalent in today’s pesos.


  5. When i arrived in Colombia in 1973 to smuggle back 5 keys of blow, the peso was around 25/30 to the dollar. When i left in 1980 it was starting to fall and was at 35 pesos to the dollar but was slipping fast.


  6. I’ll check this site once a week and personally answer ALL questions put to me. And thanks for reading my book. Collin has been a great help in getting the word out and has done a wonderful job of displaying the illustrations and putting the words with them. Thanks Collin.


  7. Thank you Kendall for your story. I’m in awe. Is it Ok to use extracts from your book in our next album? We are a revolutionary rock band from Sweden and your exploits will make great lyrics.


  8. sorry for the late reply. but yes dustin you may use excerpts from my book. love rock n roll so go for it. would like to see what you do but that is not required to use my story. i’m glad you enjoyed the read…kendall


  9. Yes, you can get a hold of me at Sorry for the delayed response. Will try to be more prompt in the future. Will nswer all question. I presently live in Thailand and been for the past 5 years and plan on dying here…k


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