Christine Wenger-Bartee, formerly of California in the United States, is close to completing four months as a prisoner in a Costa Rican jail.
The 50-year-old has survived on elementary Spanish, a diet of rice and beans and a hope that the Costa Rican government will soon release her.
Arrested on tax evasion charges in May, and presently fighting extradition to the U.S. in the Costa Rican courts, Wenger-Bartee was separated from her husband and her grand-daughter and taken to the Buen Pastor women’s prison in Desamparados, on the southern fringes of San José, where she bunks with women accused of far more serious crimes than hers.
Unwilling to return to the U.S. and unable to go back to her home near the Osa Peninsula, she remains in prison, caught between two judicial systems.
Wenger-Bartee said her lawyer has advised that it is against Costa Rican law to imprison someone for non-payment of debt (except for non-payment of alimony and child support) and that the United States is using her “as an example.”
But she is no closer to walking out the prison doors.
“These people have never been convicted of a crime,” said their attorney, Arcelio Hernández. “Yet, there’s no telling how long they’ll be kept here. They’ve requested political asylum, hoping to live and die here.”
Meanwhile, Wenger-Bartee said the U.S. government sold her ranch and drained her of all assets she held there.
“Any debts I left behind were more than paid off with what they took,” said Wenger-Bartee, who had filed bankruptcy in 2003. She said she and her husband were “cheated and tricked” in the bankruptcy proceedings.
Wenger-Bartee said she left the U.S. in 2004 and, more than five years later, Interpol found her at her home in Tres Ríos de Coronado, in Costa Rica’s southern zone.
She said she was taken in handcuffs to the Buen Pastor women’s prison, where she met Ellen Stubenhaus, also wanted by the U.S. government, but for different reasons.
Stubenhaus said that, upon moving to Florida in 2001, she got involved with a self-help group preaching an alternative lifestyle and offering ideas about how to protect oneself and one’s wealth.
“I was attracted to a lot of things they were teaching,” she said, explaining that the group’s lessons went beyond finances and included classes on health and self-improvement.
“I wanted to share that with others … to educate people to have the ability to make smart decisions.”
Members of the group – known as Pinnacle Quest – were indicted in September of 2008 on charges of conspiracy to “impair and impede” the Internal Revenue Service and involvement in an anti-tax movement promoting the use of offshore trusts and foreign bank accounts as ways to evade federal income taxes.
But Stubenhaus had long since left for Costa Rica in search of an alternative to living in a country she found “corrupt” and limiting.
It was only in June that her involvement in the group caught up to her and she was arrested and taken to prison on U.S. tax evasion charges. Like Wenger-Bartee, she is fighting extradition.
“We were teaching people how to reduce their expenses. How could that be illegal?” she asked. “We weren’t defrauding anyone.” Stubenhaus said she will never return to the U.S. because “we won’t get anything near a fair trial.”
However, life in a Costa Rican prison has been trying. With tears in their eyes as they recounted their stories, the two women said they’ve been barked at by guards, ignored by doctors and threatened and abused by fellow inmates. They said that as the only foreigners imprisoned there, they’ve been a target for theft and maltreatment. Additionally, they said, sanitary measures remained unchanged when an outbreak of the H1N1 virus threatened prison inmates.
“I didn’t know this was a death sentence,” said Stubenhaus, as she sat in an open-air courtyard within the maze of the prison’s buildings.
She said that while the U.S. Embassy claims to provide “fair and humane treatment for American citizens imprisoned overseas,” the only help the embassy has given was the delivery of a few National Geographic magazines and expired Centrum vitamins.
“It’s just one more reason we don’t want to go back,” Stubenhaus said. “They don’t even make an effort to protect their citizens.”
A representative from the U.S. embassy said they don’t comment on individual cases of extradition.
Stubenhaus and Wenger-Bartee are two of the 30 Americans currently detained in Costa Rica. The pool of incarcerated foreigners includes convicted prisoners, pre-trial detainees (those who are charged, but not convicted), immigration violators and those facing extradition, according to the U.S. Embassy.
The number of extradition requests by the U.S. to Costa Rica varies from year to year, but they average 10-15 annually.