Eddie Padilla's Escape From Lurigancho

The onetime OC man is the only man still alive who escaped from Peru's most notorious prison

Padilla spent the next three years on Maui. He was there when Jimi Hendrix played what amounted to a private show for the Brotherhood and their friends thousands of feet above sea level on the slope of the Haleakala volcano, an event immortalized in the eminently unwatchable 1972 film Rainbow Bridge. Before long, though, cocaine moved in—as well as the ego, greed and paranoia that came along with it. Padilla abandoned his wife and young kids in Kihei and retreated to a house in Makawao, spending more time getting high and chasing younger women than surfing. "I had a total fucking relapse," Padilla recalls. "It was like I had never taken acid."

In August 1972, a multi-agency task force busted the Brotherhood, raiding stash houses and hash-oil operations from Laguna Beach to Oregon to Hawaii. Although many of his friends were caught in the arrests that took place that month, most spent only a few months or a year in jail before going back into smuggling. Padilla managed to evade arrest and fled to Costa Rica, where he stayed until the heat had passed. He then began traveling again under an assumed name.

"I had the genius to think I could smuggle coke," he says. Padilla hollowed out the neck and body of a Fender electric guitar so he could fill it with 1,800 grams of cocaine. "I found somebody who had a connection and went to Cali [Colombia] and started running coke from Cali, flying from Bogota right to LA."

Padilla in Maui, circa 2001
Courtesy Lorey James
Padilla in Maui, circa 2001
Worst suburb ever
Worst suburb ever

When the police busted the Colombian network, Padilla turned to Peru. He made seven successful coke runs from Lima to LA before a friend invited him to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii to supervise a load of "Thai Stick." Before he could take up the offer, though, Padilla had one last deal he had to finish in Peru. "I was burned out," he says. "I made up my mind that this trip was going to be the proverbial last time."

*     *     *

When the Peruvian police busted into Padilla's room, his world blacked out, and all he could see was the barrel of the gun pointed at his face.

Padilla had arrived in Peru the previous day and was staying at a high-end resort outside Lima with his friends Richard Brewer and James Thomason—both of them fellow Orange County-bred smugglers. They were posing as a trio of jet-setting tourists on a surfing safari, but in reality, they were about to fly back north with as much Peruvian flake as they could carry.

The man pointing the pistol at Padilla's skull was named Delgado. He had dark skin, jet-black hair and a body built like a tank. "That guy was the evilest fucking guy I met in my life," Padilla recalls. "He reeked of murder and mayhem. Every word had a threat in it; it seemed like there was no hesitation that he would kill you."

It didn't help things that Delgado and his Peruvian Internal Police (PIP) cohorts had followed Padilla's in-country coke contacts for days before he landed at the airport. Or that there were 20 kilos of cocaine in his hotel room. The only thing in Padilla's favor was that he'd hired a San Clemente machinist to craft a diving tank with a hollow bottom, which was now filled with $58,000 in cash and sitting next to the coke. "They came in the door, started kicking us around, slapping us around," Padilla says. "That's when I got Delgado to get that bag of money."

As Padilla would only later discover, Delgado and his PIP henchmen were elite anti-narcotics officers with license to murder drug traffickers. They were backed by the newly created U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), whose birth in 1973 was a consequence of the rapid rise in drug smuggling fueled by groups such as the Brotherhood.

The PIP, or at least Delgado, was also corrupt to the core. As soon as Padilla offered him $58,000 as a down payment to drop the charges, Delgado appeared willing to sabotage his own case against the three American smugglers. Ostensibly to keep them isolated from the DEA agents who were eager to interrogate them until he could come up with a cover story that would exculpate them, Delgado took Padilla and his pals to the PIP's infamous Pink Panther villa, which the agency had seized from a recently deceased cartel figure.

"It was a two-story, pink mansion," Padilla says. "They took the whole bottom floor and made it a jail, put metal doors on closets and dining rooms. The cell we were in was literally a walk-in closet, with a metal door and framing. It was pitch dark, and I was handcuffed for two days. You could hear people screaming and women being raped."

Padilla began to lose hope. He apologized to his friends for luring them to Peru on such a stupid mission. "I broke inside that closet," he recalls. "I fucking broke down crying."

*     *     *

About six months into his incarceration at Lurigancho, Padilla began to realize he wasn't going home any time soon. Although the Brotherhood's attorney, Chula, had flown to Peru to help facilitate his defense—even smuggling a ball of hash to Padilla—the Peruvian justice system was proving difficult to thwart. Delgado had testified in court that there were no drugs in Padilla's room until after Padilla had been handcuffed, meaning that someone had set him up, and if anything, Padilla should only face possession charges. The judge had pronounced Padilla and his friends abseulto—absolved—of the crime. But now they needed to wait for the Peruvian Supreme Court to sign off on the ruling, and the judges seemed to be in no particular hurry to do so.

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