The Malta Independent 27 May 2019, Monday

‘I did not think twice about swallowing capsules to smuggle drugs to Malta’

Rebekah Cilia Sunday, 21 April 2019, 09:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

Six people were waiting outside Pippa Dos Cantos Crisostomo’s hotel room as she happily gingerly opened the door expecting to find the person who would collect the 45 heroin-filled capsules she had just smuggled from Istanbul, Turkey, to Malta. Instead, she was met by law enforcement.

She was eventually jailed, an experience she describes as the best thing that could have happened to her, despite being a transgender woman in a male prison.

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Six years ago, Pippa’s life was in shambles. Addicted to drugs and heavily indebted to dealers, she found herself completely alone. “I didn’t have any friends or family. I was a refugee of drugs.” Fearing retaliation from the drug dealers, she moved from one city to another in her native Portugal, but they followed her everywhere. “I just had to find a way out. One day, someone approached me about transporting drugs from Istanbul to Malta. I didn’t have to think twice about it. When you’re hooked on drugs, you take risks that you normally wouldn’t. I needed a way out and this was it. I wasn’t told what would happen or who would come to meet me.” Having no money of her own, this person paid for her tickets and passport, she explains.

As she made her way to Istanbul, however, a sense of foreboding washed over her; a “gut feeling” that she would not be returning to Portugal. “I was so scared. I had no idea what I would find. I had never done anything like this before.”

When she got to the Turkish city, she was asked to pay a standard $20 fee at border control. With no money to do so, she tried calling the person sent to pick her up from the airport, but he could not get through security either. Stranded and alone, Pippa could not tell anyone the real reason she was in Turkey. An airport official eventually agreed to stamp her passport and let her through... in exchange for a favour. “I agreed to meet him somewhere but never did.”

Outside, a driver asked her if she was waiting for someone. Not knowing who she was supposed to meet, she assumed that this person was her pick-up. As they drove along the dark and relatively secluded roads to the city, the driver spoke to her in broken English. She soon realised that this was not the person she was meant to meet. “I was afraid because I knew the local attitude toward transgender people. I was sure he’d kill me so, as soon as I got the chance, I opened the door and made a run for it.”

She managed to make her way back to the airport, where she met the man who had come to pick her up. “He was very nice to me and gave me money straight away. He took me to a hotel and told me we would not be in contact for the next two days. I could move around freely and at that point the whole thing felt more like a holiday. I was relieved I no longer had to look over my shoulder.

Two days later, at around 6pm, the same person brought her the drugs she would be carrying to Malta. She was unaware that the 100 capsules she was meant to swallow contained a kilo of heroin. “The capsules were large, and I had to use oil to get them down and sweets to mask the taste of tape. I only managed to swallow 47 of them.”

Pippa soon began vomiting and bleeding, however. Alone in a hotel room in an unfamiliar country, she thought she would die. Sweating profusely and running a fever, she decided that she could not go through with her plans. Meanwhile, the person who had brought her the drugs called every ten minutes. She told him that she wanted to take what she had swallowed and just go home. Not allowing her to back out of the deal, he proposed that instead of paying her €3,000 to transport 100 capsules, she would receive €2,000 for the 50 she told him she had swallowed. Knowing that the capsules would be counted, she hid three in a slipper, later discarding them outside the hotel.

“By the time they discovered the missing drugs, I thought, I’d be in Europe and safer. He counted them and I was off.”

Exhausted and nauseated, Pippa made her way to the airport, where she feared sniffer dogs would detect the drugs she was carrying. “I was paranoid but I managed to check in. I went straight to the toilet and threw up three of the capsules. I was down to 45.”

“They tell you to accept any in-flight refreshments but I just couldn’t stomach it. I tried not to go to the toilet either, to avoid raising any suspicion.”

A man seated next to her on the plane was carrying a bag full of mobile phones. She found this and the fact that he was swapping their SIM cards very strange. On her arrival in Malta she was required to show her passport. Noticing that it had been stamped in Turkey three days before, the border official made a phone call. Pippa was certain she had been caught. To her surprise, however, she was allowed through after her bags were searched and she was asked a series of security questions. But during her interrogation, she saw the man who had been seated next to her on the flight. Assuming she was out of the woods, she took a taxi to a hotel in Sliema, where she fell asleep. Two hours later, there was a knock at the door. “I thought, ‘Finally, I can just hand the guy the drugs and get back home.’ Instead, there were six people, including three women.”

They informed her that they were police officers before proceeding to search the room. “They were quite nice to me, actually. They asked if I had drugs, which I denied at first. But then one of them pulled me aside and gently told me that it would be easier to just admit it.” Panicked and in tears, she did. She was allowed access to a legal aid lawyer, who explained to her what she should expect. She was then taken to Mater Dei Hospital. After five days, two of the capsules were still inside her and surgery was scheduled for their removal. Luckily, they passed as she made her way to the operating theatre. Five hours later, she was transferred to prison.

She was asked to help identify the mysterious man on the plane, whom she picked out of hundreds of photos. He was discovered staying in a hotel room right next door to hers and a sting was set up. “I got a call from this person and I pretended to be in the room next to his. I asked him to bring me food. A police decoy was waiting in the room, but when he showed up with €2,000 and the food I’d requested, he realised it was not me. He gave chase but was caught.

Pippa was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison in light of her cooperation. “Prison was the best thing to ever happen to me. It was the break I needed to get my life back.”

“I was not given my own cell initially but was placed in one with another transgender woman. The laws on transgender prisoners have changed significantly since then, something which other transgender people and I worked very hard for.”

Pippa explains that the law needed to be changed (the Gender Equality Act was approved in December 2015), but while other transgender prisoners might have been mistreated, she could not say the same. “The authorities trusted me and I had several jobs in prison. I was never rude and when I fought for my rights, I did so respectfully. In fact, I was even allowed to wear makeup after I explained to them how important this was to me. I felt well-protected as a transgender prisoner, even with guards outside my cell.”

A year into her sentence, Pippa met her current partner, Oivend Xuereb, who was also serving time, and following her release, she completed a year-long rehabilitation programme with Caritas Malta, which she describes as a challenging time of self-discovery and soul-searching, but also as a time of inner peace. “At first, I wanted to go back to prison; to my friends; to the world I knew. I was like a glass that had been shattered, shards scattered everywhere; I was afraid of what the future might hold.” She credits the organisation with helping her to regain her freedom.

Like her, Oivend was released on parole and they now live together. Both are employed and look forward to the future. Although she will remain on parole till 2021, Pippa says she can finally start dreaming again – a luxury she had lost to drugs. “Life hasn’t been easy. When it comes to drugs, you’re oblivious to the time or day; you sleep and wake up, and all you care about is drugs.”

The clanging of the cell doors still haunts Pippa, triggering anxiety and sadness, but she tries to stay positive. “I’ve only been on my own for a year but I’m taking baby steps. Oivend and I have been through the same problems, so we support each other.”

One of Pippa’s dreams is to have children of her own one day. She explains that when you are younger and in the process of becoming transgender, you do not think about the future, but now at the age of 34, reality has hit. While adoption is now legal for her, she still feels the process may be too hard. Pippa had also dreamt of being a singer ­– a dream made possible thanks to Caritas. During her programme, she performed for the President of Malta.

While Pippa says she is still finding her path in life, she hopes to be an inspiration to others who are going through a similar situation. She hopes to write a book about her experience, in the hope that others can learn from it.

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