An Internet Scam And Cocaine: A Swiss Imprisoned Abroad Escapes House Arrest

(MENAFN- Swissinfo) It's a story that could be taken from a film: a 60-year-old Swiss woman was arrested in 2021 at Bogotá airport with more than three kilogrammes of cocaine in her luggage. She claims to be a victim of fraud. A Colombian judges ruled against her, convicting her on drug charges. After two years under house arrest, she managed to escape and return to Switzerland. Mise au point, a RTS Swiss public television programme, Looks back at this extraordinary escape.

This content was published on June 14, 2024 - 11:00 9 minutes Béatrice Guelpa, RTS
  • Deutsch de Die wilde Flucht einer 68-jährigen St. Gallerin von Bogotá in die Schweiz Read more: Die wilde Flucht einer 68-jährigen St. Gallerin von Bogotá in die Schwei
  • Français fr La folle cavale de Bogota à Gams d'une sexagénaire saint-galloise Original Read more: La folle cavale de Bogota à Gams d'une sexagénaire saint-gallois
  • Italiano it La folle fuga da Bogotà di una pensionata di San Gallo Read more: La folle fuga da Bogotà di una pensionata di San Gall

Elisabeth and Peter Baumgartner are a retired couple much like any other. They do not live opulently, but they enjoy a decent retirement. They live in Gams, a small village surrounded by mountains in canton St Gallen.

Peter, a former chimney sweep, has a weakness for bargains on the internet, as he previously told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper.

When he receives an email in September 2021, promising a mysterious inheritance of several million francs and a trip to Colombia, he falls straight into the trap.

“You have won a free trip to Bogotá, the email promised. All expenses paid. At the time it was our 30th wedding anniversary. It was great timing. We could go to Bogotá,” Peter tells RTS.

At first, his wife Elisabeth is not convinced. Her husband however insists, until she finally gives in.“He insisted so much that in the end I answered: 'Okay, I'm coming with you'. When you've been married for 30 years, you don't give up easily,” she says in an interview with RTS in Bogotá in mid-March.

Traveling to Bogotá

Any reservations they harboured fade as the flight tickets arrive. On September 17, 2021, the couple flies to Bogotá. They also receive pocket money of $1,000 (CHF900) from their contact person.“The week there was great,” Peter tells RTS.“Everything was wonderful. Until the agent came.”

The agent invites the couple to dinner at a restaurant. He explains that there is a small problem with the inheritance. The money is still there, but they would have to return to Europe to collect it. The return ticket is paid for as a gift.

The agent only has one condition: the couple should take a gift for a friend with them in their luggage. Elisabeth asks him if it was legal.“The man said it was 100% legal,” Peter Baumgartner told RTS.“I looked at the gift. It was a kind of plastic tube, 30 cm high, with six small rolls in it, along with two little picture books.”

Despite Elisabeth's renewed doubts, the couple put the package in their suitcase and leave for the airport.

The 60-year-old spent several weeks in Colombia's largest women's prison. RTS The arrest

The check-in process is uneventful, and the couple take their seats on the plane. The engines start up and the crew prepares for take-off.

Elisabeth remembers the moment when everything changed.“I was sitting comfortably, had taken off my shoes, the headphones were already on, the TV was already set. Then the stewardess came up to me, said my name and asked if it was really me? And when I confirmed that it was, she said told me to come with her.”

Outside the plane, two officers handcuff her and lead her to the airport police station.

“They opened my suitcase and took out the rolls of paper and the two books. They opened the rolls a bit and I see white powder coming out. And I think, 'my God, this is heroin!”

The police discover more than three kilograms of pure cocaine.“It all seemed so strange to me. I had never thought that there could be cocaine in there. I didn't even know what it looked like,” Elisabeth recalls. She is immediately arrested.

Imprisoned in Colombia

Elisabeth is imprisoned in Bogotá's women's prison,“El Buen Pastor”. Around 1800 inmates, most of them Colombian, live together in very close quarters.

“It's so big... There was so much pressure, it was indescribable. They just locked me in there. There is no hot water, only cold water. There is no fixed shower, just a hose coming out of the wall. There are no electrical sockets, they are all ripped out”.

Soon, the pensioner's mental state deteriorated and her lawyers succeeded in having her transferred to house arrest. An exception: under Colombian law, drug-related offences are normally punishable by a prison sentence.

“She was suffering from stress, loneliness and anxiety. So if they added a prison sentence to that, it could have led to a collapse in her mental health. And, on the other hand, she wasn't going to escape justice. These are the arguments that the prosecution deemed necessary, or sufficient, to allow her to remain under house arrest,” her lawyer, Diego Henao Vargas, told Mise au point.

Dramatic turn of events

The Swiss citizen spent almost two years in a studio north of Bogotá, which she paid for with her AHV pension. Maribel took in the pensioner during this period. A rather unusual tenant who spent her time making origami and never went out.

“This was Suzanne's* place. She came up here every day to sunbathe and smoke. This was Suzanne's life, very quiet. We miss her,” said her landlady.

In March 2023, at her trial, she agreed to plead guilty in the hope of remaining under house arrest and reducing her sentence. She faced between 12 and 20 years in prison. She was finally sentenced to five years. But in August 2023, a judge sentenced her to return to prison.

When she heard the news, the woman from St. Gallen was shocked.“She always said: 'I won't go back to prison, I'd rather take my own life than go back there',” explains Maribel.

A four-day journey

Suzanne, who was able to keep her passport and a credit card, chose another option: escape. She fled on the night of Sunday 27 August 2023. Without telling anyone...

From Bogotá, she took an internal flight to Leticia, a town two hours' flight away in the south of the country, on the border with Brazil. Leticia is a small town in the middle of the Amazon, crossed by an invisible border. The pensioner leaves Colombia for Brazil by tuk-tuk.

Three kilometres away as the crow flies is another airport, Tabatinga. From there, she took a flight to Manaus, another to São Paulo, before boarding a plane for Paris and Zurich. An incredible journey: five flights and over 15,550 kilometres in four days!

In Leticia, Mise au point met a man who said he recognised the Swiss woman.“I picked her up here at the airport. She showed me a GPS point on her phone and told me to take her to Tabatinga airport. She knew the costs, she knew exactly how much she had to pay,” he recalls.

Back to Gams

When she arrived in Zurich, she returned to Gams, the small village in the canton of St. Gallen where she and her husband had lived for more than 30 years. But it was not his home that the fugitive found refuge. After two years in exile, she no longer wanted to see him. She rented a room at the Hotel Schäfli in the centre of the village, 300 metres from her old flat.

She finally found somewhere to live in March and now lives in a neighbouring village. That's where we found her. We interviewed her at length before she went on the run. But for the time being, she prefers to keep a low profile and no longer testify on camera.

Her legal troubles are not over. The pensioner is free for the time being. Last November, she was summoned by the St. Gallen Public Prosecutor's Office, which opened new proceedings. This time, her husband was also heard. The couple are facing a new trial. This time in Switzerland.


Colombian judge accuses Switzerland of being behind the escape

In Colombia, the judge who sentenced Baumgartner is furious. In the judges view, the pensioner could not have acted alone and benefited from the complicity of the Swiss embassy and the Federal Council. This accusation is categorically denied by the Foreign Ministry, which claims to have been informed of the situation when Baumgartner had already returned to Switzerland.

“Whatever the circumstances, a crime was committed here in Colombia. It was the Swiss government, very probably, I'm almost absolutely sure, that intervened so that she could leave Colombia. They see our countries as hunting grounds for the Europeans, and they continue to see us as Indians that they have to come and colonise, conquer and subjugate”, says Hermens Dario Lara Acuna, a judge at the Superior Court of Bogotá.

Baumgartner faces an additional 4 to 9 years in prison for having escaped. And an international arrest warrant has been issued for her. But under Swiss law, she cannot be extradited.

To be continued...

Translated from French with DeepL/amva

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