book reviews

Reviewing The Cocaine Diaries: A Venezuelan Prison Nightmare

Last year, I got on a kick, watching episodes of Locked Up Abroad. This is a television show that aired on National Geographic about people who committed crimes abroad and wound up in prison. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first heard of Irishman Paul Keany, who spent over two years locked up in Venezuela’s Los Teques Prison for trying to smuggle cocaine from Caracas, Venezuela to Dublin, Ireland.

Paul’s story on Locked Up Abroad…

Keany, who wrote his book The Cocaine Diaries with writer, Jeff Farrell, was a divorced father of two in Ireland in 2008. He was working as a plumber, but Ireland was going through a terrible recession and work dried up. He didn’t have enough money to support himself or pay his debts, and he was trying to support his teen-aged daughter, Katie, who had moved in with him. Desperate to make good on his bills, Keany found himself agreeing to fly to Caracas, pick up some cocaine, and bring it back to Dublin. In return for drug smuggling, he hoped to make 10,000 euros. Keany had never been to nor heard of Venezuela and his drug dealing contacts made it sound like it would be an easy crime. He’d get to have a nice holiday and make lots of money that would make his life easier. In retrospect, it was one of the worst decisions of his life.

Keany went to Caracas, picked up the cocaine, hid it in his suitcase, and headed for the airport. Once he was there, he got nabbed by the police, who hauled him off to jail. Keany spent many hours handcuffed to a staircase, where he was eventually sodomized by the police. He went to court and pleaded guilty to the crime, which got him a sentence of eight years. Tossed into Los Teques Prison, Keany had to fight to stay alive. The crowded prison was run mostly by the inmates, most of whom had access to weapons, drugs, cell phones, and computers. He mingled among rapists, child molesters, murderers, and drug-runners. He had to pay for everything– even his bed– and stand in line for the disgusting toilets. He had to pay “protection money” to prevent other inmates from beating or killing him. He was stabbed and raped, and feared for his life daily. His family was forced to support him; fortunately, they were willing. Los Teques was designed for 350 inmates, but over 1200 people are locked up there. You can imagine the effect that has on one’s quality of life.

However, the jail stint wasn’t all bad. Keany kept an extensive prison diary, made some friends, learned Spanish, and had enough interesting experiences to turn his story into an exciting book, which he published in 2012, with his friend, Jeff Farrell. Keany’s story is horrifying and it serves as a grim reminder that drug running is a bad idea that will most likely lead to a hellhole prison in a developing country. But Keany found humanity among his fellow prisoners as well as people in Venezuela who helped him get out of prison.

Keany was supposed to stay in Caracas for five years once he was paroled. Instead, he and another Irishman made a run for Colombia, where they had to use their wits to get past the border. Once they finally made it to the airport, they were nearly busted again for not having a proper passport stamp signifying when they entered the country. In fact, they lied to Irish embassy officials to get new passports, claiming they had been robbed. But… as you can see, Keany was successful in leaving South America. Fortunately, Venezuela has not pressed for his extradition. Ireland doesn’t have an extradition agreement with Venezuela, anyway.

Although I think I would rather die than go to prison myself, I do find stories about prison fascinating. This was one of the better prison memoirs I’ve read, even if Keany and Farrell had an annoying habit of abusing the reflexive pronoun, “myself”. They’d write sentences like “Myself and Billy went to the classroom.” I know people often speak this way, but I find it non-sensical and cringy. Why not write “Billy and I went to the classroom.”? That makes a lot more sense to me. On the other hand, this book is relatable because they authors have written it as if they are there with you, speaking to you about the ordeal. I found that aspect of the writing very compelling.

Another thing I noticed was that Keany makes some racist comments. Los Teques was a truly international prison and there were representatives from countries all over the world. Keany has names or slights for almost all of them. He refers to a Romanian prisoner as “the Gypsy”. He cracks about Nigerians who are asked to make stick figure drawings of their families, noting that it “should be easy due to all the famines over there”. He makes all sorts of comments about the women of Venezuela and Colombia, most of whom he thought were beautiful. But in one disappointing passage, he describes two Venezuelan women as fat, ugly, and “rotten”.

If you like a good prison memoir, I would recommend Paul Keany’s story, The Cocaine Diaries. At the very least, it serves as an excellent reminder that things that seem “too easy” almost never work out the expected way. However, Keany makes no pretenses of being a good man who was caught in the wrong place. The fact is, he is guilty of his crime, and he tried everything, legal or illegal, to get out of prison. And once he was out, he didn’t stick around and do things legally. He left illegally and prayed he wouldn’t get extradited. He deserved to get caught, although I will agree that he did not deserve to be gang raped, beaten, or stabbed. Hopefully, Keany’s learned his lesson and has left his life of crime in the past.

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