All posts by Colin

The Dole

Part of this chapter originally appeared as a blog post on Expat Chronicles. See The Mick on Being a Paddy in 1980s London.

Christopher and Anne Marie befriended an Englishman, Mop, who told them about his scheme. He was committing welfare fraud against the British government. After explaining the operation, he told them he would be leaving for London the next day, a Thursday, and he would be back in Dublin with plenty of money on Monday. As Mop predicted, he was back in Dublin with over a thousand pounds. Christopher and Anne Marie were interested. Mop coached them on how to get on “the dole” in England.

A birth certificate and personal info were needed to register with the British welfare office, the Department of Work and Pensions. Christopher had been using the “John Quinn” alias for over 20 years by this time, since the Wembley Ball incident. He had also obtained the information of another quiet, childhood classmate. Christopher requested and obtained birth certificates for himself. Then went to different government branches to request legal documents for John Quinn and the second false identity. So Christopher had three birth certificates, and Anne Marie acquired three birth certificates in similar fashion.

After getting the birth certificates, Christopher and Anne Marie had to live in a London hotel for a few months. They needed to produce receipts to demonstrate that they were residing in the United Kingdom and seeking employment. They fed their addiction while awaiting the dole with the same petty stealing they did in Ireland. They stole whatever they could from London stores and shops, to be sold immediately.

Once they had submitted the required documentation and established their various identities at different branches of the Department of Work and Pensions, they were paid. Christopher estimates the allowance was 400 British pounds per identity per month.

400 pounds sterling in 1985 would be worth $1150 today. With three of those checks per month, Christopher and Anne Marie were making the 2014 equivalent of $3450 per month, or $41,400 per year. This was enough for a comfortable lifestyle in London. However both were heroin addicts, so there still was never enough money. They did not have to steal as much. Christopher landed into short-term lockup in London once or twice for petty theft.

By 1985, the Northern Ireland conflict between the various factions of the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries, and the British security forces had been increasingly violent. Since the 1970s there had been bombings on British soil. Many killed civilians. The Guildford bombings, which killed four soldiers and a civilian, were one of the more high-profile bombings ultimately popularized in the film In the Name of the Father. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Gerard Conlon who, along with three other Irishmen, were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for over a decade.

Christopher says there was a palpable anti-Irish sentiment in the streets of London at that time. Irish were suspected — hated even — everywhere. So he and Anne Marie chose to take their dole money abroad as often as possible. They visited Paris and Amsterdam, where they stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants at the expense of the British taxpayer.

In Christopher’s words:

I went over there to fuckin start doin the dole. I was strung out and had three doles goin at the same time. Lots of old money. Lots of those fuckin, the Good Queen, those pound notes with her boat race on em. It was so easy to do, I couldn’t believe it. You’d be there 20 minutes and you’d have 400 quid.

A paddy was not a good position to be in fuckin London with the IRA bombin everywhere, and the Irish have a bad fuckin name. And I’m robbin the fuckin British government. I had to be in London. We had to stay for a few months first and that was not very fuckin pleasant. Nobody was nice to a paddy in fuckin London.

The store I went to every day, they wouldn’t say hello. Never once said “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” or “Kiss my ass” or nothing. And I don’t even think they were English. I think maybe Pakis, which is worse again, Pakis givin me stick. Fuckin loads of Pakis in one of those little Paki shops and they’d never say hello to ye, never say good morning because of the bombings.

Ye could not rob anything from one of those Paki shops. You’d go into a Paki shop and there’d be 20 of em workin, servin ye. Fuckin kids. Ye fuckin go to take something and BOOM, there’s some kid lookin at ye. All over the shop, millions of em.

At least they were workers. But to be Irish was maybe worse than bein a Paki at that time in London. So London was not the place to be, but it was the place to get the money. Get loads of money and move out. We used to fly to Paris or to Amsterdam, and just stay away as long as we could. Just hit London to get the dole and go somewhere else. Just not to be there because you’re just a paddy in London.

The Irish community in London was just workers, laborers, fuckin building workers. Big, stupid paddies workin on the building sites in London and bein abused by the fuckin Brits. I wasn’t into that at all. I was into robbin em, to see how much I could get out of em. Not to see what they would pay me.

I couldn’t say anything nice about London. I didn’t even like the beer or the pubs. Nothing about it. Full of shit. Wet shit too. And bein a paddy in London is like bein a fuckin nigger, somewhere not very pleasant where ye can do what ye want but you’re still a nigger. Just Irish ye know.

And then with In the Name of the Father and the bombings and the false accusations and the Brits bein fuckin liars. And they wouldn’t say hello to ye!

Finally we lost the dole business. To get started on the dole ye have to stay at some cheap hotel. And ye bring in a couple weeks of receipts from stayin at the hotel. And as soon as ye got cleared for the dole, you’d leave the hotel. But after a few months, if they came and checked on ye and found that you’re not livin in the hotel, they’d cut off the dole. Ye couldn’t really go back and try to restart a false dole. Ye just had to leave it. But we had three each, myself and Anne Marie and Mop. We made good money at that. There was plenty of old Rich Queen money to go around for over a year.

We were bangin up smack every day. Maybe 15 months or two years, something like that. I wouldn’t have been stayin in London if I didn’t have the dole. No culture, nobody says hello to ye, fuckin shithole. I didn’t like anything about it. It had nothing to offer me except the dole money.

During their trips to Amsterdam, Christopher and Anne Marie met a Uruguayan cocaine dealer named Arturo.

Los Angelitos

This chapter originally appeared as Los Hermanos Angelito in Bogota on the Expat Chronicles blog.

Abdon and Christopher were cellmates for a few months in La Modelo when Christopher learned the nickname for Abdon and his brother, Ernesto, was “Los Angelitos” (The Little Angels). They were mid-level gangsters and associates of the Cali Cartel. Aside from the occasional contract killing and kidnapping, Los Angelitos specialized in clearing drug mules through El Dorado airport security and onto international departures. As Christopher saw in his failed attempt, Abdon dressed as a pilot.

Their friendship was further cemented when Christopher agreed to take all the blame for the cocaine. After Abdon was released, he and Ernesto visited Christopher regularly and gave him money. They believed he was going to be their mule into Europe.

When Christopher was released in 1989, Abdon and Ernesto picked him up in Ernesto’s BMW. They went drinking at a tienda near the prison. Now with three years immersed in Colombian Spanish and culture, Christopher noticed Los Angelitos’ particular style. They were embambados (blinged out) in gold jewelry and designer clothes.

While drinking in the tienda, another car rear-ended Ernesto’s BMW while trying to park. Before the drunk driver could get out, Ernesto approached his car and shot him in the head. This was Christopher’s first night out of prison. Then Los Angelitos took Christopher to a whorehouse. The shooting was not mentioned the rest of the night.

Christopher moved into Los Angelitos’ family home in Barrio Estrada near Simon Bolívar Park. In addition to Christopher, residing in the large home were Abdon, Abdon’s girlfriend, Abdon’s girlfriend’s niece, and Los Angelitos’ parents. Ernesto lived nearby with his wife and their three kids.

Christopher could not leave the country according to court order, so he certainly was not going to smuggle drugs for Los Angelitos. In fact, he had no intention of bringing drugs to Europe, but Los Angelitos did not know that yet.

Los Angelitos had a different job for Christopher. From Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden on Colombia’s criminal culture:

In what may have begun as simply a method of debt collection, [Pablo Escobar] would recruit thugs to kidnap people who owed him money and then ransom them for whatever was owed. If the family couldn’t come up with the money or refused to pay, the victim would be killed. Sometimes the victim was killed after the ransom was paid, just to make a point. It was murder, but a kind of murder that can be rationalized. A man had to protect his interests … If someone cheated you, you either accepted your losses or took steps yourself to settle the score … As the amounts of money and contraband grew, so did the need to enforce discipline, punish enemies, collect debts, and bribe officials. Kidnapping or even killing someone who had cheated him not only kept the books balanced; it sent a message… Kidnapping for debt collection evolved soon enough into kidnapping for its own sake.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia developed a reputation for kidnapping. Most were linked to the cocaine business, as was the lawyer who Los Angelitos kidnapped. They visited Barranquilla, identified him, and got him drunk. While he was inebriated, they forced him into the trunk of Ernesto’s BMW and drove over 24 hours back to Bogotá. The lawyer’s brother had a debt with the cartel, which Abdon and Ernesto were contracted to collect.

Los Angelitos set Christopher up to babysit the lawyer at a finca (country house) owned by the mysterious “Don Javier,” Los Angelitos’ contact with the Cali Cartel. Located a few hours outside Bogotá, the finca came with typical cocaine baron luxury. It was a mansion with a swimming pool, outhouse for the servants, pool table, televisions, stereos. The surrounding area was tropical paradise.

The lawyer was obese and the finca lay in the bottom of a valley. Christopher says the lawyer could not have escaped if he wanted to given his physical condition. Christopher was in great shape from training with M-19 and playing soccer, so he would easily catch him. So Christopher did not keep the lawyer tied up. He told him the first day that if he tried to escape, Christopher would shoot him. No questions asked. He showed the lawyer the gun Los Angelitos had given him.

Once that was established, Christopher suggested they enjoy themselves during their stay. They became friends. Los Angelitos had given Christopher a brick of marijuana. He went jogging every morning and enjoyed leisurely swims, smoking joints all day long. In addition to shooting pool, Christopher taught the lawyer how to play backgammon. The two spent over a month together by the time the lawyer’s brother paid his debt. Christopher returned to Casa Angelito.

Los Angelitos, instead of collecting cash for the ransom, accepted a piece of real estate in a small pueblo. Whether it was false documentation or subject to seizure by the Colombian government, the brothers never converted the real estate into cash. Christopher was never paid one peso for babysitting the kidnapped lawyer, but he enjoyed his time at the plush finca.

Back in the city, Christopher found work teaching English. He was quickly flush with cash. One day he invited Abdon’s girlfriend and her niece for a drink at a bar. After only a couple drinks, the girls were too nervous to stay. They said Abdon would beat them if he found out. So the night out was cut short. Christopher later found out Abdon was having sex with both women. When the girlfriend learned of the affair with her niece, she moved out. The niece stayed.

A few months into his stay, Señora Angelito insisted Christopher move out to make room for a friend of the family from Cali. Christopher could feel the disdain the mother had for him. She had found him secretly throwing away plates of food she cooked for him, which he says was worse than the food he ate at the prison caspetes.

Christopher was thrilled to leave, as he saw it as an opportunity to forget his obligation to be Los Angelitos’ mule. He moved into a posh apartment in the north of Bogotá and settled into a comfortable life. After a few months seeing Los Angelitos less and less, Christopher came home one night to find a letter from his empleada (maid):

Abdon llamo su hermano murio

In Spanish, addressing someone in the third person is a sign of respect, and it is the norm in Bogotá. The empleada’s note could have two meanings. “Su hermano” could be “your brother” or “his/her brother”. Christopher took it to mean “Abdon called, your brother died.” It was raining, and back then Colombian phones did not work during rain storms. He could not call Ireland. Believing his own brother in Dublin to be dead, Christopher started drinking.

Christopher was good and drunk by the time he learned that Abdon’s brother, Ernesto, had been killed. Ernesto was sitting in his car with his mistress when he was shot six times in the head. The mistress took three bullets in her left leg.

A month later Abdon was found shot to death at Ernesto’s grave. The setting was another Colombian quirk — sending a message of terror by executing Abdon while he was mourning his brother’s death.

Christopher later learned through the underworld grapevine that the caleño sent from Cali killed Los Angelitos. They had borrowed cocaine on loan and did not pay on time. Their mother had kicked Christopher out to make room for her sons’ killer. He ate and slept in the family home while planning the murders.


This is the first chapter on one of Christopher’s first prison friends, Tachuela. It appeared on the Expat Chronicles blog as part of the entire saga, which you can see at The Rise and Fall of Tachuela.

In an environment where nobody spoke English, Christopher picked up Spanish quickly. He decided to apply some of the political lessons he learned in Irish prison. Specifically, he wanted to make friends with feared inmates.

Christopher noticed the presence of Tachuela in the patio. He could tell by the vibe and body language of the other prisoners that Tachuela was feared. In fact, he was the most feared inmate in Patio 7. “Tachuela” means “tack” or “thumbtack” in English. He got this name because he was small in stature but a dangerous killer, quick and skilled with a knife. Christopher plotted to make an alliance.

Tachuela often hung out on the patio just on the other side of the barred wall outside Christopher’s cell. Christopher realized that Tachuela enjoyed listening to The Beatles, which Christopher played every morning in his cell. He had brought a medium-sized tape player with a few Beatles tapes for the hotel room while kicking heroin. He brought them in case the local radio only featured salsa and Latin music.

Christopher called Tachuela over one day and gave him the tape recorder and all the Beatles tapes. He had played the tapes out anyway, to the point he could not listen to them. But instead of selling them or holding on to the tape recorder, he just gave it all to Tachuela. He gave a brief explanation, just the word “regalo” (gift).

Christopher and Tachuela began greeting each other every day on the patio. Tachuela communicated that he cried after receiving the gift. Nobody had ever given him anything in his life. Christopher occasionally invited Tachuela to breakfasts and lunches at the caspete. When they began to be associated as friends, the caspetero at Christopher’s preferred restaurant warned him about his new friend. He told Christopher to be careful because Tachuela was dangerous. He was responsible for all the killings in their patio during the last few weeks.

That was why Christopher chose to buddy up with Tachuela in the first place. In fact, Christopher had witnessed Tachuela stab an inmate before they became friends. Tachuela stabbed Jacob The Jew in the pelvis, just above the genitalia. Jacob The Jew survived the attack. Once friends, Tachuela told Christopher the story. Jacob The Jew was a part of the small, affluent Jewish population in Bogotá. He had been working with a kidnapping gang, providing information on wealthy families’ children and assets. He helped them organize kidnappings and collect ransoms, unknown to the Jewish families themselves until he was caught.

Once Jacob The Jew was discovered and sent to prison, the Jewish families were furious. Some organized to take revenge. Tachuela got a contract from the outside to stab Jacob The Jew. Tachuela would have made 50,000 pesos ($300 in 2014) from that stabbing. That was the market rate. However, Jacob the Jew survived. After recovering, he was being transferred by bus to a courthouse. Another prisoner on the bus took a knife to his face, carving a scar the entire length of his cheek. Jacob The Jew was finally killed after yet one more attack.

As he had established himself with the Dunnes in Mountjoy, Christopher became known as a close friend of the most feared killer in Patio 7.

The Michelin Man Goes to Jail

This story originally appeared on the Expat Chronicles blog here.

On the day of Halloween in 1977, Christopher ran into his second cousin, Edmond. Like Christopher, Edmond was plugged into Dublin’s criminal world. He and Christopher had bought and sold hash over the years.

Christopher told Edmond he urgently needed to find a “fancy dress,” or costume, for a Halloween party that evening. Edmond told Christopher it was his lucky day. He had a brand new costume, an official Michelin Man outfit. It had a comfortable nylon mask that would not prevent Christopher from drinking at the pace he was accustomed to.

Instead of having to find and pay for a costume at a store, Christopher could just stand a few pints at the pub for his favorite cousin. That is exactly what they did. A couple pints and whiskeys later, Edmond gave Christopher the boxed costume from the trunk of his car and they went their separate ways. Christopher tried on the Michelin Man costume at home.

It was the nicest rubber I had ever felt, all smooth and soft and bouncy, and inside it had these rubber tentacles like an octopus. It was lovely. I put it on in the house but I couldn’t get out the door so I had to take it off again, which I didn’t mind in the least, the sensual feel, the floppiness. It was like something off of the television or outta the movies.

Christopher and his date, dressed up as a plant, went to the Halloween ball at the Lansdowne Road rugby stadium. He got drunk and a good time was being had by all. In his words, “Everybody was in awe of my uniform. I knew I had woken the envy of the multitudes.”

Then all of a sudden the music was turned off. The party stopped and everybody turned to look towards the door. A group of police stormed in looking for the Michelin Man. They immediately cuffed Christopher, in costume, and escorted him out.

The Michelin Man costume had been stolen from a ship anchored in the Dublin Docklands area, where it had arrived from France for a corporate promotional tour of Ireland. Christopher told the police he bought the costume on the street from a guy he had never met. He did not name Edmond. The police charged Christopher with Receiving Stolen Property. Christopher was sentenced to six months in Mountjoy Prison. This was Christopher’s first sentence in a penitentiary, as opposed to short-term lockup.

After a few weeks in Mountjoy, Christopher was moved to Loughan House, a low-security prison in Blacklion, County Cavan. This new facility was heaven compared to Mountjoy. It was a British-style mansion set among rolling, green hills overlooking lakes. Instead of a crowded, concrete prison yard, there were only 40 prisoners in total to enjoy the large fields and fresh, country air. The food was better. One of the prison guards was a chef who not only served good food, but also joked with the inmates and treated them with respect.

The prisoners at Loughan House were not dangerous. Some were nearing the end of long sentences. Most, like Christopher, were serving short sentences for non-violent offenses. It was a stable environment. Nobody was trying to be the toughest guy in the prison. There was no drama or politics.

Christopher found something to complain about — the amount of butter that came with the bread. He casually mentioned the insufficient butter while receiving his lunch. The second time he created a small scandal, raising his voice and threatening. He did not convince them to give him more butter, but he did convince them to send him back to Mountjoy for being “unsuitable.” He estimates he was in Loughan House less than two weeks before being kicked out.

Christopher returned to Mountjoy, sad to be back. That first night in his cell, a prison riot broke out. He had just closed the door of his cell when he heard the first riot noises. “Riot noise” would be the sounds of violence, men yelling, things breaking. Christopher listened to it all, the roaring and screaming. The smell of smoke entered his cell. He couldn’t leave. The smell of smoke while being confined to a nearly airtight space scared him more than ever before in his life.

The riot raged for a couple of hours before the guards put it down. Then Christopher heard single shouts.



These would be cousins or friends confirming each other were safe and sound.



This would not be Christopher’s last prison riot.

Public Hanging

This chapter originally appeared on the Expat Chronicles. See that blog post at A Public Hanging in South Bogota.

One of Christopher’s students, a waiter in a hotel, told him that he passed a dead body every day on his commute to work. Sometimes two bodies, but always at least one, in the Ciudad Bolívar slum in south Bogotá. Christopher decided to visit the neighborhood. He bought a bottle of aguardiente and took a southbound bus.

When he arrived in the slum, Christopher saw the poorest living conditions he had ever seen. The roads were unpaved at the time, and there were rows and rows of impoverished people densely packed into the area.

Then Christopher ran into Ricardo, the old leader of the M-19 training regimen in prison. Christopher offered him some of his aguardiente and they had a friendly reunion. Ricardo invited Christopher to see an example of the good work M-19 does in the city. He knew Christopher would not be spooked given his time in La Modelo. Christopher agreed and followed Ricardo to the site of the show.

It was around noon when they came to a large scaffold in front of a waiting crowd. The stage was built in front of a shanty. A solid beam rose above with a noose hanging from it. Two masked guerrillas pushed forward a blindfolded man. They put the noose around his neck and kicked him off the stage. He shook and convulsed for several minutes before dying in the noose, hanging above the crowd.

Christopher was not rattled, but he was not animated by the public execution by revolutionary guerrillas in broad daylight of the nation’s capital. It killed his mood to party. Before Christopher said goodbye, Ricardo explained the man they executed had been raping children from the neighborhood — both boys and girls.

At that time, police did not go into Ciudad Bolívar. The locals had no protection. Where the government failed to meet public need, the M-19 guerrillas filled the void. In providing some security, they gained political support among the same poor citizens their ideology advocated for.

In 1990, the 19th of April Movement (M-19) laid down their arms in a formal truce with the Colombian government. The guerrilla army demobilized and converted into the M-19 Democratic Alliance political party. According to this 1990 New York Times article, “Colombia Rebels Shun Arms and Win Votes”:

A surprise winner in Colombia’s elections on Sunday was a guerrilla group that only two months ago traded in its guns for the ballot box.

In a vote that may encourage Colombia’s other guerrilla armies to come down from the mountains, the M-19 party unexpectedly emerged as the nation’s third largest political force. In its first test at the polls, the party won 13 percent of the vote.

“For the first time in our history, a guerrilla group that abandoned its arms submitted itself to democratic scrutiny as a political party in a presidential election,” President Virgilio Barco Vargas said in a nationwide television address after the M-19’s strong showing on Sunday became clear…

“The M-19’s vote shows that groups who give up their weapons will find space in Colombian political life,” Ricardo Santamaria, who works in the presidential peace office, said.

Colombia’s two largest armed groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, remain on a war footing. On election day, the two groups carried out 20 armed actions, killing 16 people, wounding 20 and kidnapping five…

But euphoria reigned at the heavily guarded headquarters of the M-19, officially called the April 19 Movement…

Later this year, after almost 20 years of rebellion, the M-19 is expected to finally walk through the doors of government. Mr. Gaviria, the President-elect, has said he will honor a pre-election pledge to give the M-19 a Cabinet post.

The M-19 Democratic Alliance ultimately failed as a political party, but several of its more prominent political leaders continue in Colombian government today. Most notable of former M-19 guerrillas is Gustavo Petro, who spent over a decade as a liberal congressman, opposition mainstay, and perennial presidential candidate before being elected mayor of Bogotá. As mayor, Petro generated controversy by unilaterally banning bullfighting in the city. Soon afterwards during a waste management scandal, Petro was dismissed from the office by the Inspector General. He was later reinstated in what has thus far been seen as an ineffective term.

Years after the demobilization, Christopher saw Ricardo in the north of Bogotá. He was delivering pizzas on a motorcycle.

John Rowley

Most of the stories from this chapter originally appeared in the Expat Chronicles article, South London Gangster in Colombia.

While in La Modelo, Christopher heard of another gringo locked up in Medellín’s Bellavista prison. He heard this mysterious foreigner was not American but European, and that he was a tough guy. He had been in knife fights. This piqued Christopher’s curiosity. Christopher became pen pals with John Rowley in 1986 and they continued their correspondence during Christopher’s entire sentence in La Modelo.

Christopher was released before Rowley was. In 1990, Rowley was transferred to the Espinal prison near Ibague. Espinal, in the department of Tolima, is closer to Bogotá. Christopher decided to make the trip to meet his old pen pal. He brought Eduardo, who was keen to meet any gringo who might be willing to participate in scams since Christopher respectfully withdrew.

Christopher put thought into what he would bring Rowley. He designed a gift basket fit for a gringo king. He filled it with fresh fruits the mess hall would never serve and other treats you cannot get in Colombian prison.

When they finally met, they exchanged pleasantries and Christopher presented the gift basket. Rowley had no interest in the food; he did not even go through it. He asked for the cocaine. Christopher slipped him the bag containing a few grams of pure coke from the street. Rowley immediately started vacuuming it up his nose. He snorted at least a half gram in just a moment. Christopher and Eduardo, two ex-cons from Colombian prison, were shocked. That was Christopher’s first impression of John Rowley.

Rowley was released in 1990 and found Christopher in Bogotá. They started partying and getting to know each other, and Christopher heard Rowley’s unbelievable story.


Rowley had been involved in the 1983 Brinks-Mat robbery near London’s Heathrow Airport, the biggest gold heist in British history. A team of six masked gunmen armed with sawed-off shotguns stormed a Brinks-secured vault. The team had inside information from one of the warehouse security guards. Rowley was one of the gunmen.

The team had been aiming for £3 million in cash. But while trying to gain access to the vault, they found pallets stacked with three tons of gold bullion worth £26 million (over $125 million in 2014). Rowley told Christopher it took them hours to load the gold into their vans. And it took several more hours to unload the vans. Watch this National Geographic segment on the robbery, a small episode of the long story that ensued:

Or watch a clip from Fool’s Gold, the British made-for-TV film about the Brinks-Mat heist, which stars Sean Bean as gang leader Micky McAvoy:

McAvoy was arrested and sentenced to 25 years. Also arrested were Brian Robinson and Brinks security guard Anthony Black. A scramble of double-cross and murder played out. Insiders were knocked off while the criminal establishment of London melted down and sold the gold.

Kenneth Noye was the gangster who ultimately disguised the gold’s origins and sold it off over many years. He grew rich until he was convicted of murder in 1996. City and private resources have been dispatched to recover whatever money it could before it was all in global tax havens.

From a 2000 BBC article recapping Brinks-Mat in all its glory:

Despite dogged police work spanning nearly two decades, it seems most of those involved have simply got away with it — and most of the gold will never be recovered… It is claimed in some quarters that anyone wearing gold jewellery bought in the UK after 1983, is probably wearing Brinks Mat.

Rowley did not hang around for the drama that followed the robbery. Three tons of gold and two boxes of diamonds are on the record as part of the loot. Not reported was a bag of Thomas Cook traveler’s checks Rowley kept. Rowley told Christopher he had received diamonds and a small cash payment before fleeing for Spain, then Bulgaria, and ultimately the Colombian islands of San Andrés.

Rowley lived a good life for a year in San Andrés spending the traveler’s checks. Rowley learned Spanish while travelling between San Andrés and Medellín, where he changed the checks for cash. Then he started working with fake checks, which eventually caught up with him. He was arrested in Medellín’s Rionegro airport — brand new at the time — on the same day President Virgilio Barco was passing through the airport, for which security was heightened. Rowley was sent to the Bellavista prison in Medellín.

Rowley in Bogotá

One day in Bogotá, Rowley found Christopher having lunch with his English institute boss. A surprised Christopher went along with the amazing lies Rowley spun. Christopher tried to sneak looks of warning to his boss, but the boss did not pick up Christopher’s subtleties. By the end of lunch Rowley had a job with the institute. A few days later he was living in the boss’ house.

Within a week Rowley had money for booze and coke. Christopher suspected Rowley was having sex with the institute manager’s wife. Uninterested in teaching English, things soured but Rowley collected enough money to start staying at hotels and brothels on credit.

The Bogotá community of conmen heard about Rowley from Eduardo. They needed a foreigner for their scams. Christopher was no longer willing to participate, but Rowley was clearly not interested in honest work. Before introducing Rowley to the conmen, Christopher refused to vouch for him. He even warned them to be careful. The Colombians scoffed at that — Bogotá’s best conmen being careful around a gringo.

Using fax machines was standard practice in the advanced economies of the world. But in 1991 they had just started to emerge in Colombia. Fax machines provided ample potential for scams, especially on banks. Rowley jumped at the opportunity to work with the Colombian conmen. However, Rowley started getting over on them as soon as he started working with them. Christopher is not sure what he was doing — asking for weekend loans he never paid back, passing off checks as collateral that he would never come back for, and not showing up for commitments. According to Christopher, Rowley was a fast talker who could manipulate people in both English and Spanish.

Christopher had been trying to keep Rowley from learning of the bar on Carrera 11 at Calle 91, the English teacher hangout. He did not want to be associated with the Englishman who would undoubtedly scam everybody. And given he was capable of scamming Colombian conmen, he would make quick work of gringo expats.

Rowley found out about the bar. One day he watched Christopher leave from around the corner. As soon as Christopher left, Rowley stormed the bar asking for Christopher. He introduced himself to the bar manager as Christopher’s partner, telling him they were supposed to meet just at that moment. The manager told Rowley that Christopher had just left. Rowley spun him a yarn, an unbelievable story convincing him to loan Rowley a few hundred dollars’ worth of Colombian pesos, leaving a check as collateral.

Christopher learned of this the next morning at the bar. The manager told him he met his “partner,” John. Christopher’s heart sank, but he did not tell the manager about Rowley. In the next days, Rowley came back for more, leaving more checks with the manager who was all too eager to sell him pesos for checks at a favorable exchange rate. The manager caught on to his mistake after a week or so, and started asking Christopher about Rowley. Christopher started distancing himself from Rowley.

Christopher swore Rowley off several times in the course of their friendship. But Rowley stayed in Christopher’s good graces by being unbelievably generous with what he stole. When he realized Christopher or Eduardo were growing sick of him, he would show up at the bar or dance club where their group was. Then he would lay down wads of Colombian pesos on the table and announce it was to be spent on any indulgence they might have: food, beer, whiskey, aguardiente, cocaine, marijuana, drinks for women, prostitutes, or whatever they desire. They enjoyed nights of excess and hedonism. In hindsight, Christopher realizes that these were calculated ploys for Rowley to stay in others’ good graces just to take advantage of them again. Even his partying was as calculated as his timed arrival at the gringo hangout.

While everything was calculated, the excess was not an act. Rowley spent weeks at a time living in brothels. One time Christopher saw him in bed with six women, with cigarettes, liquor, marijuana, cocaine, and crack on the table for all to help themselves to. Rowley would smoke crack for days without sleeping. His main vices were crack and prostitutes.

Bogotá Royal

One day Eduardo told Christopher that the conmen community had enough of Rowley. He had burned enough members of this secret society that they wanted him dead. Eduardo and Christopher went looking for Rowley where they knew him to be hanging out. He was living around Calle 23 with Carrera 4. At the time this was a district of crack and underage prostitutes. The boardinghouses were the cheapest in the city. Rowley hung out every day in front of a tattoo parlor run by a Belgian, Danny Tattoo.

Eduardo and Christopher found Rowley there. He was in bad shape — broke, in poor health, and wearing shabby clothes. Eduardo and Christopher took him to a bar in the north of the city to have a few beers and aguardiente while they told him the bad news. They had ideas for him to skip town and avoid being killed, but the conversation did not get that far.

True to form, Rowley asked for cocaine. Christopher gave it to him. With each snort of coke and swallow of aguardiente, Rowley transformed into the smooth, confident guy Christopher had come to know. He no longer seemed sick and shivering, although still broke and wearing shabby clothes.

Newly invigorated, Rowley proposed a scam. He noted the British ambassador was traveling in China and asked Christopher to call the embassy. Posing as a British tourist, Christopher learned the name of the interim ambassador. Then Rowley called the Bogotá Royal, an upscale hotel on Calle 100, a short walk from where the British embassy was in 1991. Speaking in a posh, uptown-London accent, Rowley identified himself as the interim ambassador and explained that an important British businessman had been robbed at the airport. He had nothing and needed immediate accommodation at the embassy’s expense.

Rowley borrowed clothes from Christopher and took a taxi to the hotel. The hotel staff drooled over Rowley, intimidated by how he carried himself with an air of importance and urgency. And they tried to upsell him as much as possible since he was on the embassy’s tab. They put him into new clothes and a watch. They brought him room service and bottles of booze. Rowley arranged for cash advances, withdrawing sizable amounts at each shift change of the hotel cashier.

This fraud took place over the Christmas holiday, a notoriously slow time in Bogotá. So Rowley was able to milk the scam for over a week. He treated Christopher, Eduardo, and gringos from the English-teaching community to the usual excesses every night for what made a nice holiday for those far from family. Rowley sensed when the hotel started getting suspicious, and promptly disappeared.

The hotel game was up, but Christopher did not know that when Rowley invited him to party at a brothel. Christopher arrived and joined Rowley at a round booth with four or five girls. The girls were topless, making out and fondling each other. Each had a glass from the bottle of whiskey on the table and each helped herself to Rowley’s pile of cocaine.

Christopher started drinking too and a good time was being had by all. The tab grew as more whiskey was drank and cocaine snorted. Christopher drank himself incoherent. Rowley snuck off with girls here and there, night turned to dawn, dawn turned to sunup, and Christopher woke up in Rowley’s room. Rowley had left, telling the brothel management that Christopher would pay the tab, which had grown to 200,000 pesos (worth 2.6 million pesos in 2014, or $1290). Christopher called one of his English students and begged for a loan — an advance on classes — to pay the tab.

Christopher decided to distance himself from Rowley again. The next he heard of Rowley was that he was incarcerated in La Modelo. He was picked up on a Bogotá street, having lunch at a street-side cafe. The security manager of the Bogotá Royal just happened to be walking past when he recognized Rowley and called the police. Rowley spent six months in La Modelo.

The Fall of John Rowley

When Rowley got out, he came to Christopher. Christopher was angry about the brothel incident, but he still liked Rowley. They were both European criminals and drunks. They had a lot of fun together. So Christopher let Rowley stay with him for a few nights after getting out of prison.

One night they were drinking late when Christopher went to bed around 3 a.m. He woke up in the morning to find Rowley gone and his new Sony stereo and speakers missing. He was also missing his best clothes. On his calendar was a note that said something to the effect of: “Had to go, see you soon. Don’t worry about the money!”

Christopher swore Rowley off forever.

A few months later Christopher’s girlfriend, Cristina, ran into Rowley at a flea market. He ran his charms and she showed him the emeralds Christopher gave her to sell. Rowley lured her attention away and stole the emeralds.

Christopher was with Cristina in the city center the next time he saw Rowley, who had degenerated into a bona fide crackhead. He was unshaven and missing a tooth. He wore a suit jacket with no shirt underneath. His pants revealed his shins and were tied at the waist with a rope. His shoes were too small for his feet with no socks or laces. He begged Christopher for 500 pesos so he could get to the north of the city and rob. Cristina mentioned the emeralds and Christopher told him to fuck off.

The last Christopher heard of John Rowley came from a prison friend who was plugged into the Cartucho crack scene. Rowley had started robbing among that underworld and was soon wanted dead. He got it with a knife on some unknown night, on some unknown street, by some unknown killer.

Rowley was the best confidence man Christopher ever met, in Europe or Colombia. Everything was calculated and he was never off. He was always angling on how to take advantage of people. Christopher noticed that Rowley would drink while working on people. Christopher had learned that conmen do not drink when they are working a mark. They laugh and act drunk, but they dump their drinks under the table or dispose of them in some other way. Rowley would not stay sober. He would get drunk but never lose sight of his target. He could have made a fortune as a conman if he would have treated it as a profession. But more important to him were sex and drugs, and then ultimately just crack.

Christopher’s greatest memory of John Rowley was the Samantha Fox party, one of the nights Rowley was playing the big shot. Samantha Fox was a British pop singer on tour in Bogotá. Rowley managed to get invited to their concert after-party, and he brought enough pure cocaine to provide everybody in attendance. He ordered bottles of champagne as a complement. They were the center of attention among the gorgeous singer and her entourage of music industry professionals.


Parts of this chapter were taken from the Expat Chronicles article, Scopolamine in Colombia.

The first time Christopher learned about scopolamine, he was drinking at a lawyer’s house near Calle 100. There was plenty of food and aguardiente. Christopher left the party early in the evening and came back to Chapinero. He met a group of people drinking on Avenida Caracas. The last thing he remembers is kissing one of the girls in the group.

The next day Christopher woke up in a blanket, completely nude, in his apartment. The apartment, which was fully furnished and decorated the previous day, was bare. It had been cleared out. The only things in the apartment were Christopher and the blanket.

Christopher learned from one of his neighbors a couple days later that whoever robbed him had rented a van to get everything out. More unbelievably, Christopher helped them load the van. The neighbor assumed they were friends. This was Christopher’s introduction to scopolamine in Colombia.

Scopolamine, known as “burundanga” in the underworld, is a powerful sedative extracted from the Brugmansia flower, which grows wild in Colombia. It is said that taking a nap under a Brugmansia tree will yield a buzz upon waking.

Scopolamine is used as a central nervous system depressant to treat nausea and motion sickness. It is attracting attention for its potential in treating addiction, specifically nicotine. Side effects include dry mouth, impaired speech, amnesia, excitement and restlessness, hallucinations, and delirium. Nazi scientists and Cold War intelligence agencies experimented with scopolamine as a truth drug.

Scopolamine’s most common use, however, is to facilitate robbery and assault in Colombia. Gangs of thieves prey on unsuspecting victims by drugging them and taking advantage once they are under the influence. Scopolamine renders victims open to suggestion, and its amnesic effects make it impossible to remember what happened. While “open to suggestion,” victims willingly give their credit cards and PIN numbers to their assailants. Christopher helped a gang take everything he owned.

From the US State Department website’s Colombia page, under the Safety and Security section:

The Embassy continues to receive reports of criminals in Colombia using disabling drugs, including scopolamine, to temporarily incapacitate unsuspecting victims.  Perpetrators may offer tainted drinks, cigarettes or gum at bars, restaurants, and other public areas, especially those that cater to sexual tourism.  Typically, victims become disoriented or unconscious, and are thus vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault and other crimes.  Avoid leaving food or drinks unattended at a bar or restaurant, and be suspicious if a stranger offers you something to eat or drink.

The prevalence of scopolamine use, the devastating losses in scopolamine robberies, and the victims’ inability to remember what happened have combined to spawn various myths and urban legend, all of which were popularized in the VICE documentary, Colombian Devil’s Breath:

One urban legend is that scopolamine can be blown in someone’s face, like magic dust, to render them submissive. Another says thieves put it on the buttons of ATM machines, or that sex workers strategically place it on their skin to be ingested by unwitting men. The majority of confirmed cases, however, can be traced to drinking. Scopolamine gangs work in bars and clubs, but they mostly work in brothels and red light districts.

It is a common story in Colombia for somebody to be drinking and make friends with a new group of people. The next morning he wakes up on a park bench barefoot with nothing in his pockets. Having the apartment cleared out, as Christopher did for his first experience, is the most extreme loss.

Christopher and Arthur took Sinead, Christopher’s daughter with Cristina, for lunch at a country restaurant just north of Bogotá. With lunch, they drank a few rounds of beer with a bottle of aguardiente. After eating, Christopher and Arthur paid the bill and left.

In retrospect, Christopher claims there was a dodgy atmosphere at the restaurant. They took a taxi down to Parque 93, which today is the heart of wealth in Bogotá, but at that time was not a fashionable neighborhood. As soon as they got in the taxi, Arthur exclaimed to Christopher, “Everything is white, everything is WHITE!” Then he started kissing Christopher on the cheek. Then everything went white in Christopher’s eyes.

The cab driver kicked them out of his taxi. Christopher does not remember many details, only bits and pieces. There was a heavy rainstorm, and at one point Christopher and Arthur were crawling under a bus to avoid getting wet. The bus driver shooed them out from under the bus. Christopher and Arthur got the urge to visit Anapoima. That was when Christopher remembered the baby. Where was the baby?

The next morning Christopher woke up in the hospital. An employee from the British embassy, with police present, asked him questions, mostly related to the baby. Christopher’s memories came in waves. Even the high returns in short spurts. Christopher ultimately learned that he and Arthur had dropped the baby off at the babysitter’s, then picked it up a short time later. At some point they made a scene in front of police. The baby was taken away and they were brought to the hospital.

Christopher describes scopolamine as what sounds like an extreme ecstasy experience. You are in love with everything and everybody. Everything is peace and love. No evil. This all comes with nearly impenetrable amnesia.

In Christopher’s words:

I’ve been given burundanga many many many times. Ye know burundanga effects, “Ye like my watch? Go ahead and take it.” Ye just give it away. And then in the morning the memory has gone.

Usually the whores have it.

I’ve been scoped at least twenty times. Many times they take anything of value. But then again sometimes they take everything. Maybe five or six times they got the apartment. It was gettin kinda common. I started taking precautions against it. I stopped leavin me drink around, holdin me bottle, not lettin anybody slip me a mickey from any direction.

I think the burundanga has burned many of my brain cells. If I drink aguardiente or whiskey, I can feel that in my head. The burundanga has done that.

I think it’s a controlled item now. It’s not so easy to get. It was never easy to get, it’s difficult difficult difficult. I know all the baddies, the underworld, and I’d have a hard time gettin it.