Judge Santiago Burdon

Los Be-ot-lays 

San Sebastian La Ternera Penitentiary 

Cartagena, Colombia 

I was being released from the prison in Cartagena the next morning and I was more than excited. I had to tone down my happiness or a guard may just give me something to remember him by.

After eighteen months in this shit hole of a prison, my Old Man finally decided to take mercy on me and pay off the Magistrate. The reason wasn’t because he forgave me for my crime of smuggling drugs. He came to realize everyone thought of him as a heartless asshole for letting his son rot in prison. He claimed he was teaching me a lesson but didn’t explain what the lesson was. I was told he was constantly hounded by family members and friends to negotiate for my release. The terms for my freedom amounted to somewhere close to thirty thousand dollars. 

Another reason he decided to pay for my release is my mother had run up a large bill on her credit cards due to her biweekly visits, for flights, hotels and paying off the guards to ensure my safety. My incarceration was costing him more money than he anticipated, so he hired some attorney who had worked with the Kennedy Administration to negotiate my release with the Colombian Magistrate.

Once a month the Administrator of the prison threw a party for inmates. You were issued an invitation if you demonstrated good behavior, had a good work record and could pay the cover charge. There was music, prostitutes, beer and drugs available all for a price. I had an open invitation because my mother paid my cover charge every month. I’m sure she wasn’t aware of what went on at these soirees. If she had known, there’s no doubt she wouldn’t have been so generous.

My seven cell mates seemed to share in the excitement of my fortunate release. All except Javier, the Salvadoran, showing his disinterest by lying in his bunk singing softly while bouncing a rubber ball against the wall. He was a member of MS13 Mara Salvatruca gang. Originally he was sentenced for life for what I assumed was murder. I knew better than to ask. Just two months back he stabbed and killed a rival gang member of the 18th Street Gang, right in front of guards and convicts in the yard. Here he is in General Population, in my cell waiting to go to trial. Welcome to Hell.

I asked each of them what they’d like for me to send them from the United States if possible.

A couple Chicos asked for watches although shoes were the most popular request. Nikes were the preferred brand I was told while they handed me their shoe sizes scrawled on toilet paper.

From the far corner in the top bunk, Javier spoke.

“Quiero cassetta de ‘Los Be-ot-lays’,” he said softly. 

“What? I don’t understand ‘Los Be-ot-lays’. What is that?”

“You know, the Be-ot-lays, music band.”

“Oh okay. You bet,” replied.

Although I had no clue what he was talking about, I didn’t want to investigate any further, fearing my not understanding would cause him to become angry. As I mentioned, he was an extremely violent fellow. 

I wasn’t able to sleep that night, tossing and turning in my bunk. Finally the sunlight began to peek through the cracks in the ceiling, and I could hear the sound of footsteps echoing down the concrete hallway. My anticipation grew with each step growing louder the closer they came. I had already packed the few items I was leaving with, having given away most everything else to my cellmates. I’d even gone to bed dressed in street clothes with my shoes on. I wanted to be ready without causing any reason for delay. Then I heard the jingle of keys as a guard called my name.

“Santiago Burdon, despierta,” he said.

“Okay, I’m awake and ready to go.”

“Venga,” he ordered.

I held my arms out of the bars so they could put on the handcuffs. Handcuffs in Spanish are called ‘esposas’, which is also the same word for ‘wife’. I find that fact humorous. Why I needed to be cuffed on my release from prison was a mystery to me.

David was one of the four guards that were to accompany me out the front gate to freedom. He had always treated me with a kind hand. Although if you disrespected him, you’d pay for it. 

The hallways echoed louder than they had ever sounded before. It seemed as though the passage would never reveal its end. The corridor continued with another guard, Tomas, poking me in my back occasionally to hurry me along. I didn’t need any help and would have gladly ran if they allowed it. 

Eventually we arrived at the Main Office where I was given a document and told to sign. It contained the terms of my release, exonerating the Colombian Government of any type of maltreatment during my internment. I also gave up my right to file any legal action against them. The final compliance was that I was to never return to Colombia again. 

I gladly signed the document, absentmindedly putting the pen they gave me in my pocket. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder from an officer’s nightstick. I handed the pen back, causing the Administrator to chuckle. I asked him to return my passport, which was confiscated when I was arrested. He informed me it wasn’t in his possession and most likely I would have to file a claim with the Federal Police for its return. Although I knew they wouldn’t be any help. My passport was most likely sold on the black market for a substantial price. Now I’d have to deal with the United States Embassy to issue me a temporary one so I could get back home.

He shook my hand and wished me good fortune.

We walked through the yard to the large iron gates to a chorus of voices yelling goodbye, along with applause from the inmates and from a few guards in the towers as well. I waved back, flailing both my arms above my head.

David tapped me on my shoulder and I turned around so he could take off my handcuffs, extending his hand to shake.

“No quiero volver a verte aquí.” (I don’t want to see you back here), he said sternly while shaking my hand.

An Official yelled out to open the gates and they spread apart, revealing my mother and sister standing outside beside a taxi.

I hesitated to walk out at first, and David pushed me through the entrance. My mother ran toward me screaming, “My baby! My baby!”

One of the guards mimicked her in a high-pitched voice. I turned and gave him the finger for disrespecting my mother.

She hugged me and started crying from what I assumed was happiness. 

“It’s good to see you, Momma,” I told her. “Now can we get the Hell out of here, please?”

My sister, Jocelyn got in the front seat next to the driver with my mother and I in back.

“How do you feel, Santi?” my sister asked. “I bet you’re thanking God for getting you out of prison.”

I wanted to once again remind her I wasn’t a believer in such superstitions but refrained. We didn’t always get along growing up, but she was my sister and meant well. She’d saved me from beatings by the Old Man many times and had covered my ass often as well.

The taxi lurched into traffic and we were on our way to the hotel where they were staying. 


The place was elegant and very high end. I had stayed there a few times in the past. My mother got me a suite, thinking I would feel more comfortable in a larger room after being cooped up in such a confined space. I turned on the TV to watch the news to get an idea of what I’d missed during my eighteen months of captivity.

My mother knocked and entered, smiling but appearing somewhat unsettled. 

“Mom, this room is wonderful. I appreciate your generosity. Hope you and Jocelyn are okay sharing a room.”

“We’re just fine. Now take a long hot shower and wash that prison off of you. Here’s some new clothes I bought for you yesterday. Throw those clothes you’ve got on in the trash. Here’s a toothbrush, razor, shave cream, brush and other things. Then if you’re up to having lunch, we can all go to a restaurant. Does that sound okay to you?”

“Sure mother. Listen, there’s no reason to be so nervous and cautious around me. I’m handling this very well, so please relax.”

She walked over, hugged me then gave me a kiss on my cheek and told me she loved me. I have no clue how she could still love me after all the disastrous exploits I’d been involved in. How selfish I’d been to put her through all the worry and the stress caused by my depravity. I figured she would’ve given up on me by now. Most everyone else already had.

My shower must’ve lasted well over forty-five minutes. There was hot water along with strong water pressure for a change, and the shower head was one of those fancy adjustable types with different settings. Just as I finished getting dressed there was a knock on the door. It was my sister checking to make sure I was alright. They were wondering what was taking me so long. 

We headed out to a restaurant for lunch. I commented to my mother what an excellent job she did picking out my clothes. I thanked her and she reciprocated with a huge smile of appreciation.

My mother asked if I might recommend a restaurant since I had lived in the area for a couple of years. I preferred Old Cartagena, not only for the quaint ambience, but there are a few restaurants there with exceptional cuisine. They suggested that maybe we should dine at the Hard Rock Cafe, thinking it would be safer than a neighborhood establishment. My mother still had bad memories of Matazalan when we vacationed there for a week. Everyone in the family ate some street food from a vendor and came down with a case of Montezuma’s revenge that kept them in bed for two days. She’d been leery about sampling local cuisine ever since.

I for one had never experienced any such malady from eating the food in Latin countries. I understood the reason for their apprehension, but I assured them there was no chance of getting food poisoning. My sister however wasn’t quite convinced, telling me that if she became sick I’d wish I was back in prison.

I took them to one of my favorite dining establishments. As soon as we were seated, Mama Esther came running out from the kitchen and began hugging me. 

“Santiago, it is good to see you again! I heard you were a guest at La Modelo Hotel. You are free now?”

“Yes Esther, I’m free now. I’d like to introduce you to my Mother, Elsa and my favorite sister, Jocelyn.”

“Very pleased to meet you. I should want you to know what a wonderful man your son is. He has a big heart with much kindness.”

“Well that’s very nice to hear. Thank you for your compliment.”

“One year at Christmas, he roasted a large pig and gave away every piece to the poor families who had nothing. And he even bought toys for the children!”

“That sounds like Santiago,” my mother said. “He has always cared for others.”

Honestly I’d prefer if people saved stories like those for my eulogy.

It was then that I noticed three women sitting at the bar that I’d known since first moving to Cartagena. They were prostitutes I considered close friends and always treated them with the utmost respect. Valerie and Jacqueline called out ‘Hello’ then raised their glasses as a toast. I excused myself and walked over to engage in a more personal greeting. We hugged and kissed as the ladies giggled. They expressed how happy they were to see me again and congratulated me on my recent release from prison. They suggested we meet up later and celebrate. I thanked them for the invitation but declined due to my family being here.

When I returned to the table, my mother was very concerned about my association with the angels of the night.

“You seem to know quite a few people here, Santiago. You must be a very popular guy. How is it that you know those women? Believe me, I know what they do.”

“Not really popular, Cartagena just has a very small town atmosphere. And those ladies are very good friends. What they do doesn’t define who they are.” 

“Uh huh. I’m sure that’s true,” my sister commented sarcastically.

I asked what time our flight back to the States was scheduled for.  My sister pulled the itinerary out of her purse. 

“Our flight back leaves at 10:25 am tomorrow,” she said. “We arrive in Tampa Bay at 4:50 pm. It’s about a six and a half hour flight.”

I explained I needed to go to the Embassy and file for a temporary passport. It was going to cost a couple hundred dollars and I didn’t have an appointment, so things could try our patience. Of course they asked why I didn’t have my passport, but I didn’t feel as though I needed to explain.  

We finished lunch, which my mother and sister found delicious, and we were on our way to the Embassy in Cartagena. En route, I explained once again that it would be an arduous task requiring an abundance of patience. They both appeared to be fine with the possibility of a long drawn-out process.

When we arrived I asked to speak with Caesar, an Embassy liaison officer that had assisted me during my trial and sentencing. Fortunately he was available and after a short while he appeared looking happy to see me.

“I was expecting to hear from you,” he said. “I heard you were being released due to overcrowding in the prison.” He winked with a smile. “It’s very good to see you under different circumstances. What can I do for you today?”

“Caesar, this is my mother Elsa and my sister Jocelyn. They’ve come to accompany me back to the United States. Unfortunately, my passport has been misplaced by the authorities and I need a temporary issued for my flight back tomorrow. Do you think that could possibly happen today?”

I noticed Ceaser staring at my sister while I  spoke to him. Without missing a beat, she picked up on his interest and began flirting with him.

“Yes, I would be able to expedite your request for a temporary passport. Tell me, Jocelyn is your name?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” my sister replied. “Pleased to meet you, Caesar.”

“Is this your first visit to Colombia?”

I could see where this was going. My mother poked me in my side, giving an approving smile to the flirtatious exchange taking place between them.

After they’d made a date for the evening, including a tour of Cartagena followed by dinner, I took the opportunity to interrupt them.

“Now that you’ve swept my little sister off her feet, do you think you might have the time to address my problem? Let me tell you, Romeo, if I don’t have a passport in the next couple of hours, there’ll be no philandering with my sister tonight.”

“Okay, let me take care of your request immediately. I will have a temporary passport within the hour. Excuse me, Jocelyn, but duty calls. I’ll return in a little while. Don’t go anywhere.”

“Oh God my good man, are you for real? Please hurry!”

Here I was not accepting the invitation from my friends at the restaurant, thinking I should be with my family for the night. My sister however had no qualms about accepting a date.

After only thirty five minutes, Caesar returned with my temporary passport in hand. I thanked him for his assistance and bid him goodbye. He finalized the time and place to pick up my sister, ignoring my gratitude altogether. 

“Well alright then, so long Romeo. Come on kids, let’s giddy up.”


I had been back in the States for a couple of months, having seen my Old Man twice during that time. I was finally becoming acclimated to the environment and the general routine of living on the outside. One day I was visiting a swap meet with my mother and her friend Dorothy, not looking for anything in particular. I noticed a vendor with a large sign offering buy one pair of shoes and get a second pair at half price. I bought six pairs of Nikes for my excellmates costing far less than if I’d purchased them at a mall. I picked up a couple watches as well for my ex-cellmates at the Gray Bar Hotel back in Cartagena.

There was another booth selling records and cassette tapes with an amazingly large selection of music by bands of the 60s and 70s. I thumbed through the albums, just browsing with no particular band in mind. Then under the ‘B’ selection I came upon ‘Sargent Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’  album by the Beatles. Instantly I started laughing after  realizing who the ‘Los Be-ot-lays’ were. Of course, the Spanish pronunciation of The Beatles would be ‘Be-ot-lays’. I purchased a cassette of the album for my homicidal acquaintance.

I wrapped all the gifts in one large package, adding some Playboy Magazines and Marlboro cigarettes for the guards as a bonus. At the post office, the fellow behind the counter looked at me in a suspicious manner.

“Sending this large box to Colombia are you?” he inquired. “What do you have inside?”

“There’s no reason to be suspicious, no one sends drugs to Colombia. And notice the address is a Federal building. So can we finish this transaction and get the package mailed, please? All it is are Nike shoes and some magazines. There’s no need for insurance.” 

You may be wondering why I took the time and expense to make good on my promise to send the gifts to these convicts. I knew, although told never to return to Colombia, the day would come when I would eventually go back. If by chance I ran into any of these ex-cellmates or their friends or family, which was probable, I would be considered a man of his word. Which is good  business.

You never know when you may need to get by with a little help from your friends.

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