Drug trafficking can be punished with death in China, and Hilarion’s family — along with those of an estimated 145 other Colombians — is left to wait in an almost total vacuum of information about whether their loved one will be spared. Colombian Embassy officials who visit Hilarion every few months pass along sporadic updates. But few details about charges are shared, even once a sentence has been handed down.
Most of the relatives of accused Colombian drug mules in China are too poor to make the 17,000 kilometer (10,500 mile) journey to see them or send money. Many have received no phone calls.
Instead they are left waiting for letters written on simple white Chinese prison stationary.
The plight of Colombians in Chinese prisons has taken on a heightened urgency since authorities executed last week a retired Colombian journalist convicted of smuggling almost 4 kilograms of cocaine in exchange for $5,000. Despite a last-ditch diplomatic effort by Colombia’s government to save Ismael Arciniegas, the 72-year-old was put to death by lethal injection, becoming the first Colombian, and probably the first Latin American, executed in China for drug offenses.
The number of Colombians in Chinese jails climbed from just a handful in 2006 to 146 this year, according to the Colombian government. Fifteen have been sentenced to death and an equal number have been condemned to life in prison.