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Prisoner Is Tourist Attraction in Ecuador Town : Genial English drug smuggler holds court and throws tea parties for curious visitors.

March 15, 1992|ANNE BURKE | Burke is a Berkeley, Calif.-based free-lance writer who recently returned from a year's travels in South and Central America. and

RIOBAMBA, Ecuador — Riobamba is a tired-looking town on a high plateau dividing the eastern and western ranges of the Andes in central Ecuador.

It was once a northern capital of the mighty Inca empire and later an important stronghold of the Spanish conquistadors.

But in 1797, a powerful earthquake sent a mountainside crashing down on Riobamba. A large part of the population, including the entire city council, was buried under heaps of rubble. Not a single church remained standing.

The survivors abandoned what was left of Riobamba and rebuilt from scratch at a new location. It was a valiant effort, but one that couldn't hope to reproduce the splendor of the old city.

Today, Riobamba doesn't offer a lot to tourists, aside from the religious art museum, the Saturday afternoon cockfights and a good night's sleep.

But on the outskirts of town, in a 10-by-12, cement-floored cell at Riobamba prison, awaits one of South America's unlikeliest--but most memorable--tourist attractions, drug smuggler Jimmy Smurfit.

Since his 1984 arrest on cocaine charges, hundreds of accidental jailhouse tourists have come to know Smurfit, 46, as a jocose and genial host who serves a proper cup of English tea while amusing them with his confessions of a "hippie freak," which is what he says he was during the '60s counterculture movement.

"My visitors say the most ridiculous things, like what a nice guy I am. I'm in here for drug smuggling, for God's sake," says Smurfit, pausing for a deep laugh.

Born in South Africa to British parents, Smurfit has finished nearly 8 years and 3 months of a 12-year sentence for trying to spirit 2 kilograms of cocaine past drug agents at Mariscal Sucre Airport in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

He spent the first 3 1/2 years in a Quito prison before his fortuitous transfer to the smaller and quieter Riobamba facility, 100 miles south.

The prison is a cheerless huddle of concrete buildings, housing 140 inmates, 29 of them women. In the exercise yard, prisoners queue up at a cold-water tap to bathe themselves from a plastic bucket. The cell blocks are poorly lighted and the air fetid.

But Smurfit has installed himself in a small outpost of British civility. He treats his guests to milk-whitened tea and biscuits, keeps up an English-language book exchange and recites T.S. Eliot from memory.

"Aside from the drug-smuggling thing, I was always a gentleman," he says.

All of his visitors are complete strangers, but Smurfit welcomes them as if they were old friends.

"Well that's damned decent of you," he says to a young couple who have dropped in on a Sunday afternoon in March, bearing gifts of bananas and a Paul Theroux paperback.

"Have a seat and I'll put the teakettle on." Smurfit disappears behind a curtain into a smaller room he has turned into a kitchen-bathroom with a toilet and stove.

His guests, British-born Steve Campbell and his Danish wife, Jeanette, sit on a coarse, woolen blanket on Smurfit's bed.

"We've been in Peru and we're on our way to Banos (an Ecuadorian hot springs resort) and then on to Quito," explains Jeanette Campbell. "We had read that there was this British guy sitting in prison, so we thought maybe we should go and see him."

Neither of the Campbells had ever been inside a prison before. From the way their eyes dart about the room, it's obvious they are keen to size up the home their host has created for himself in these alien surroundings.

The opposite wall is papered with old Newsweek magazine covers. A 12-inch black-and-white television and a radio-cassette player with shortwave bands sit on board-and-brick shelves.

A barred window runs the length of one wall. It affords a glorious view of the highest peak in the Ecuadorian Andes, the 20,577-foot Chimborazo.

A wallet-size photo of Smurfit's girlfriend is propped against a stack of novels on the nightstand. She is a 38-year-old Ecuadorian nurse who rides her bicycle to the prison on visiting days--Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

The romance enjoys a luxurious amount of freedom, considering its venue. Riobamba is a low-to-medium security prison and its inmates are accorded uncommon privileges. Smurfit can lock his door from the inside, and the prison administration looks the other way at overnight visits.

Smurfit emerges from behind the curtain. He is nattily dressed in a tweed cap and jacket.

"My first visitor was a British woman in '85," he tells the Campbells. "She put up a sign in the Gran Casino hotel (in Quito). Twelve people came in one day and I practically started doing guided tours."

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