Is a young drug smuggler entitled to a second chance?
In her book Rotjongens (Bad Boys, 2007), Bibi Dumon Tak presented portraits of boys in young offenders’ institutions. This is how she came to know Castel, a Dutch boy who, when he was eighteen, was caught at the airport in the Dominican Republic with one and a half kilos of cocaine in his trousers. He was given a sentence of eight years and locked up in one of the world’s most notorious prisons, but was able to make a spectacular escape. Dumon Tak wrote a story based on Castel’s experiences, as her contribution to Querido’s successful ‘Slash’ series, in which well-known children’s writers present young people’s true life stories in the form of novels.
Castel is in La Victoria Prison, terrifyingly described as a hell within walls, where your life is constantly at risk. There are thirty men to a cell, but during the daytime they are allowed to walk ‘free’ through the filthy complex. Hardly anyone can be trusted, particularly not the unpredictable, corrupt guards.
By amazing good fortune, Castel once had a crown tattooed on his arm, and so the Latino Kings, the most dangerous gang in the prison, mistakenly see him as one of their own. This is, in a way, his salvation. When Castel manages to escape, with the help of his mother and a friend, the story takes on thriller-like proportions.
The book reads as though Castel is sitting across from you at a table and telling you his story in the tough language of a kid who knows life on the streets. His account is told very much from his own perspective and is often harshly realistic. Dumon Tak skilfully elicits sympathy for Castel, without trying to excuse his criminal behaviour.
However, you sometimes have the impression that Castel is not telling the whole story. His route into the drugs trade remains shadowy. ‘I started by selling packets of crack to junkies,’ he says. Why? He came from a ‘crappy part of town’ and had been through ‘loads of shit’, then found that he loved the excitement and knowing how to ‘get rich without school’. Like so many others. A little later, Castel announces that he didn’t live ‘like a monk’ when he was in jail, but he doesn’t actually have sex in the book.
In that respect, Latino King is slightly too much like a creative portrait by a journalist, with the interviewee keeping certain things to himself, and not quite complete enough as a novel. However, this does not alter the fact that the story touches readers, making them reflect upon good and bad and crime and punishment. Does an impressionable eighteen-year-old who becomes involved in drug running deserve such a harsh prison sentence in inhumane circumstances? Judge for yourself.