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 began to lose track of time, as the horrors of Lurigancho caused one day to bleed into the next. Although the prison was heavily guarded from the outside, few guards ventured inside the facility, and inmates were free to roam wherever they wanted during daylight hours. Although Padilla and other foreigners were lucky to have their own tier, which afforded them the slightest protection and privacy from other inmates, the floor of most wards of the prison were typically covered in piss, shit and human vomit. "People were murdering people, stabbing them," Padilla says. "People were turning white, and people were stepping over bodies."

Food was hard to come by, and while drugs were easily obtainable, they came at a price. Padilla's dealer, a thug named Pelón, demanded Padilla carry out a hit on another man, and when Padilla failed to do so, Pelón attacked him with a knife. An older inmate who took pity on Padilla helped disarm Pelón and even paid him money to leave Padilla alone. In return, he demanded Padilla forsake all drugs except marijuana, and Padilla once again cleaned up his act.

As more inmates began pouring into Lurigancho in the late 1970s, conditions in the prison continued to deteriorate. The daily battle for food was so intense that the least-favored inmates were starved—in at least one case, fatally—by fellow prisoners. Inevitably, the inmates began to demand better treatment. Some of them managed to take a guard hostage. "Three Peruvians in the nastiest cell block that no guard would go inside had stabbed a guard," Padilla says. "The animals had cut him up; you could see the blood running."

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

The prisoners released the guard in exchange for a promise for better treatment. Everything was calm at Lurigancho until three days later; Padilla looked out his cell window and saw a group of soldiers lining up on a hillside overlooking the prison. They positioned a 50-caliber machine gun on a tripod; an officer shouted, "Fuego" and blew his whistle, and bullets flew into the mutinous ward for the next five minutes.

"The amount of ammunition that went into that building was incredible," Padilla says. "Then they shot tear gas, and the soldiers went in with gas masks, shooting anyone in sight with pistols. That was the first time I experienced tear gas, and it rolled into our block. The guards unlocked our cell and let us lay down in the hallway. They killed something like 100 or 170 guys, piled out dead in the main hallway. The next day, in the paper, it said it was an attempted escape."

In early 1979, the Peruvian Supreme Court finally granted Padilla, Brewer and Thomason a hearing to determine if they would be absolved of their cocaine-trafficking charges. While they waited for the ruling, they were removed from Lurigancho to a jail near the courthouse in downtown Lima. But on a Friday evening in July, after six months at the jail and four years in Lurigancho, their lawyer announced the court had refused to grant the trio their freedom. Padilla and his friends now faced the prospect of returning to Lurigancho to finish out their 20-year sentences.

To Padilla, the news felt like a death sentence. "If you do 15 or 20 years in Lurigancho, there is a good chance you will not make it," he explains. Although Thomason, who had his own attorney, said he was willing to try to escape, he didn't seem sure of the plan. Padilla and Brewer made a pact: No matter what happened, they were not going back to the prison. "It was do or die," he says. "We were serious as a heart attack. There was no going back."

Padilla and Brewer knew the location of a church in Lima where a friendly minister who often visited the prison might shelter them until they could figure out a way to reach the Brazilian border. They hoped to find transport to the Urubamba River and float their way to freedom. Once in Brazil, they could walk into a police station and claim to be tourists who had been robbed and lost their passports. They'd even used toothpaste to create a rudimentary map of their escape route on the wall of their jail cell, telling the guards the map showed their future travel plans once they were released.

After six months at the jail, Padilla had won over the guards, who seemed convinced the Americans really were just harmless surfers who, if released, had no plans to even leave Peru, but rather pick up where they left off four years ago and find some waves. The following night, a Saturday, Padilla bribed the guards, who brought beer and whisky into their cell. "I took a sip of beer and a sip of Johnnie Walker," he recalls, "but James [Thomason] drank almost half a fifth and was sick, barfing."

The guards unlocked the cell door while Thomason puked his guts out in the latrine across the hallway. When they weren't looking, Padilla and Brewer crept out of their cell. Using a metal spoon's handle, they pried open a locked door at the end of the hall, climbed a 20-foot wall topped with a 5-foot-high chain-link fence strung with three strands of barbed wire. Although it was completely dark, Padilla and Brewer knew that they were about to jump into an abandoned lot half-filled with lumber, the other side of which, beyond a short wall, was a busy Lima thoroughfare.

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