In the latest series of National Geographic’s Banged Up Abroad, we hear the tale of 19 year old American Jim PapRocki, a college graduate who is convinced by his brother-in-law to join him on a drug run to Southern Mexico. When things take an unexpected turn, however, Jim soon finds himself in Mazatlan State Prison, ‘one of the oldest, meanest, dirtiest jails in Mexico’.
We caught up with Jim to discuss his harrowing experience…
Tell us about your life prior to your time in Mazatlan.
I was raised in a small town in Tehachapi; it’s a small farming community. We were five brothers growing up on a farm. Our neighbours the Jurys, they had the farm next to us, roughly 22,000 acres. I worked for their father in the orchards and I got to know their family quite well. Bud, he flew for Trans World Airlines – I’m not sure if they’re in business anymore – but he was the youngest captain for TWA. At the age of twenty one he was flying international flights. He loved to fly, and his son Chris at the age of about thirteen, he got into flying little gliders, taking them up to about thirty thousand feet. He broke all kinds of records and ended up making a movie with Walt Disney. From that, he got to know the Hollywood crowd. So, being friends with Chris, I always had that connection with flying growing up, so as things led to another, we always stayed in contact. Then I ended up marrying Chris’ sister. One thing led to another, and I ended up flying down south with him!
So how did Chris first get involved with the drug trafficking business?
Well, he made that movie, and then what happened was some guys wanted to make a documentary down in Mexico, and they were gonna fly into the farms and actually talk to the farmers that were growing the marijuana, showing that aspect of the lifestyle; what it was like growing it and then flying out. So, by doing so, he got to see that side of the business. Now, to make a movie down in Mexico, a third of your crew has to be Hispanic, and you have to get a film permit, so it’s kind of hard to go to the Mexican government and say “Hey, we wanna make a movie on what it’s like growing Marijuana!” So, he had to fly all of the Hollywood crew into Mexico illegally to film it, and then he would have to fly back out. He did that for about three or four months, and then he started realizing he had just as much risk just doing that as actually bringing the marijuana back. So he said “You know what? I might as well see about bringing a load back!” I think the first night he did that he made about $200,000, which is a lot a money in your mid-twenties! That’s what started the whole process.
When he first asked you to join him, what was your reaction?
Well, you know, I was nineteen. Back then in the seventies, there was kind of a mindset after the Vietnam War of being against the establishment. Chris was running with the Hollywood crowd, and these were people we looked up. They had the fast cars and the finest of everything. I kind of got consumed with that and not really thinking about what happened if we got caught. I was more into the nice cars and how every time he pulled out his wallet he had a wad of a thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills. To me, that was exciting stuff.
After things went south and you were caught, how did you get through the awful experiences in the prison?
Growing up with Chris, we relied on each other. It was tough. At the very beginning I was just out of high school, I was an honours student, and growing up on the farm discipline was a strong backbone in our family. At that age though, you just don’t think about what happens if thing do go wrong. We went down on that island, and then we knew to survive we had to get off the island. At nighttime, you could see the lights on the mainland, but of course, distance over water is very deceiving. We thought it was only a few miles, so we started swimming just to survive. But when we got busted, the thing that was going through my mind was that we were Americans and we were gonna get back to the United States. We quickly realized though that we were in another country, and we didn’t have rights. And down there, we got tortured… I became a man real quick. You keep thinking “I’m American, I’m gonna get out of this”, but as we got into it we started realizing we weren’t going anywhere. So you start relying on each other as a unit to help and lift each other’s spirits and get through it. Of course, there were other Americans down there, and we relied on each other to defend ourselves and watch each other’s backs.
So is that where the plot for the jail break came from?
Well, when you’re in there, it’s nasty. It was so bad that the guards did not even come inside the prison. Amongst the prisoners, you had Presidente, you had Vice Presidente, and then you had what we called the Goon Squad. It was like a little city. If the warden wanted something, he would call out the Presindente, and he’d say “Hey guys we want you to do this or that” and then the prisoners would decide whether or not they were gonna do it. There were guns inside the prison, and there were knives; anything that you could buy on the outside, you could get on the inside. If you had money, you could live pretty comfortable, but if you didn’t have money, life was a real hell-hole. Inside there, there was leprosy; there was a lot of sickness and no medical care. It was a tough scenario. If you had family sending you money, you could do okay, but if you didn’t, it was a tough, tough lifestyle. The only thing you had to think about was how to get out. With all the crime inside the prison, the only way to survive was to think about escaping. That was what kept you busy! Everybody had their own little scheme going on about how to get out of there! There was another show in the series where a group of guys tried to escape through a tunnel, and I was there when that happened. I was on the other side of the prison. I saw on the website about how those seven guys escaped, and I kinda chuckled! It took them a lot time to escape, and there was one of the guys who was kind of oversized… He was a big man… And when it got to the time everybody was going out of the tunnel, he was too big to get out!
How do you think your experience in the jail has affected the man you became afterwards?
I think what I learned from there is that decisions have consequences. The things that you do, not only affect you, but the people around you; the loved ones. When I went down there, I had just got married to Georgina and we had a baby on the way, so me getting locked up – that affected everybody down the line; Georgina, my parents, my brothers. So, every decision you make, you gotta think how that’s gonna affect not only you, but your loved ones too. Whatever the consequence is, you’ve gotta live with that for the rest of your life.
So if someone offered you $100,000 to risk it all again, would you?
No. (laughs) I mean, I learned a lot from it, and I became a good judge of people. Being locked up in there, you see people in the raw, and what they’re made of. That part I learned a lot. But if you have your health, and you have your freedom? You can’t put a price on freedom, and that life that was taken from me, I can never get that back.
Banged Up Abroad season 10 starts Monday 6th June on National Geographic Channel.