AFTER serving the first year of an eight-year sentence for international drug trafficking in the Buen Pastor women’s prison on the southern fringe of San José, the only thing waiting for Canadian Linda Roberge, 44, was the denial of an appeal that would have released her immediately.
The rejection of the appeal, announced in mid-December, means seven more years of prison as punishment for a crime Roberge says she didn’t commit. She now plans to apply for extradition to a Canadian prison to finish serving her time.
Roberge is one of 489 inmates living in the prison’s college-campus-like pastel yellow and cream-colored dormitories, and perhaps the only one who doesn’t speak Spanish well.
“It’s a horrible, horrible place,” she told The Tico Times, in one of several descriptions that ran the gamut from resigned understanding of her plight to hellish visions of ears “bitten off” and faces slashed with lids from tin cans.
“The women are nice, but it’s not my culture. I’m not sure if this is a third-world country, but it seems like it in here,” she said.
MOST of the inmates have been convicted of drug law violations, theft and murder, and are serving an average of five to nine years with time subtracted for work, which is optional, according to the Justice Ministry. Some study grade school, some train in a trade and some work cleaning the tree-dotted grounds and buildings situated around an open-air plaza. Roberge reads the Bible and Christian texts, talks with another inmate with dual Costa Rican-Canadian citizenship, and struggles through conversations in Spanish with the staff and other inmates.
Eight hundred twenty-six foreigners are serving time in Costa Rica’s 16 prisons; besides Roberge, three others are from Canada, 13 are from the United States, two are from Great Britain and four are from other English-speaking countries.
Foreigners account for 12% of the total prison population, according to figures from the Justice Ministry.
Roberge, a former stay-at-home mother of four and volunteer at her kids’ schools, blames a greased-palm collusion between the real perpetrators of the crime and the authorities for her plight.
“This country is scary; it’s corrupt,” she said, an assessment she justifies by a frustrating experience with Costa Rican law. She requested a polygraph (lie detector) test and was denied it, and 24 character reference letters from family and coworkers in Canada were not admissible in court. (“We don’t use that kind of test here,” Ricardo Quirós, the public prosecutor in charge of her case, said of the polygraph test.)
ROBERGE was arrested Dec. 13, 2004, at the Daniel Oduber International Airport in Liberia, in the northern Pacific province of Guanacaste. Police shuffled her, her husband of 22 years, and a young woman – an acquaintance of theirs – into a private office where they searched the luggage and discovered a false bottom stuffed with slightly less than a kilogram of cocaine. Roberge said her acquaintance had lent her the suitcase in question, but the police didn’t speak English.
“I asked to talk to someone in English, but nobody came. I was confused; I kept thinking someone was going to come in and say it was a mistake,” she said.
She was arrested and the other two freed according to Costa Rican law that implicates only the person in possession of the drugs, according to Quirós.
Furthermore, he told The Tico Times, “It’s not important to demonstrate who put the drugs in the bag, its important to prove that she knew it was there.”
ROBERGE maintains the acquaintance, whose name Roberge requested be withheld, had duped her and her husband and planned to attempt to smuggle cocaine into Canada since before the trip began. The penal branch of the Supreme Court (Sala III) did not agree and sentenced her June 13. She appealed the decision a month later.
In March, three months before the trial, the prosecution offered her a reduced, five-year sentence if she signed a confession, which she declined.
“I didn’t want to sign it; I’m not guilty,” she said.
Roberge’s lawyer, Rodolfo Charpentier, defended his client’s contention that she was duped.
“One of the mistakes they made was they held Linda only because she had the drugs,” he told The Tico Times. “The problem is that the prosecutor in Liberia (Quirós) did not know about an investigation going on in Alajuela (a northwestern suburb of San José),” he said. “If he had known, he would have held all of them.” Roberge alleges the acquaintance was conspiring with the trafficking ring under investigation in Alajuela.
“(Quirós) treated it like an isolated case, but it was a case of a group of drug traffickers,” Charpentier said.
Her acquaintance had suggested the trip to Costa Rica, Roberge said, saying it would be the first time for all of them. But “her personality changed on the vacation,” and she spent her days apart from the Roberges and, Roberge alleges, conspired with members of the drug-trafficking ring under investigation in Alajuela to trick her into unwittingly smuggling cocaine out of the country.
THE acquaintance’s immigration report verifies that the woman had entered the country in January and April 2004 before entering Dec. 6, 2004, with the Roberges. But regardless of Roberge’s accusation and any circumstantial evidence, the woman has never been called before Costa Rican authorities.
Charpentier also alleges that Quirós ordered the suitcase destroyed before the trial took place. Quirós told The Tico Times the suitcase was partially destroyed when police removed the cocaine, but that it remains mostly intact in an evidence storage room in San José, a statement that Charpentier said is untrue.
Is there a possibility Roberge is innocent? “I couldn’t say so; she was proven guilty by a trial of three judges and she had a defense lawyer,” Quirós said.
Her four children ages 12-18 and husband have visited her four times in Buen Pastor. Their fourth visit took place this week, according to Sue Kalmbach, who lives in Costa Rica and befriended Roberge after hearing about her plight through her church.
Roberge’s family left messages to her scrawled in pen on a chipped, green painted table top in a covered patio where visitors can sit and talk – “I love you,” “My beautiful wife,” and other phrases.
“I have four kids I’m raising to walk the straight path. I’ve earned the respect and trust of my friends and family I wouldn’t jeopardize that,” she said. “(Drug smuggling) is not something I would do.”
Kalmbach told The Tico Times this week that she believes in Roberge’s innocence and wants to help her with the extradition process, which requires cooperation between the Costa Rican and Canadian governments.