The Women’s Ward


Ángeles María is in jail for trafficking, the same as the gringa, Doris. The gringa is new though; she arrived here a couple of months ago after she was unexpectedly arrested at the airport with a powder-filled stuffed toy. The dogs sniffed it out and it so happened that she also had a small amount of marijuana.

Faced with the impossibility to do anything, Robert, her companion, who we’ll meet later, slipped away during the moment of the arrest.

The gringa is young and beautiful. She must not be more than eighteen years old, has bluish-green eyes, blonde hair, and thick, perfect legs, a waist that requires no explanation; delicate, loving, a beauty, my friend. Ángeles, petite, dark, brunette and sensual, isn’t ugly either. She’s part of the reception committee for inmates. At this time Ángeles observed the few rags of clothing the guards let the gringa keep, including various makeup, face creams, and a pair of skirts for which she charged a fee, using a little force.

“Gringa,” says Ángeles, “we’ll protect you, but you should be careful with the guards, they’re repugnant. Later, you’ll meet Greasy, who is your boss and the one who tortures here, in this place. There are very few of us he has not raped and he even traffics our bodies. He offers us for sale to those housed in the ward for men serving mitigated sentences, and on occasion, takes us out on Saturdays to work at his brothel.”

Ángeles continued, without the benefit of crude theatrics, saying: “You would have to choose between our help or submit to the horror, but if you obey and join our crew, nothing will happen to you.”

“I don’t entiendo, understand,” said the gringa, frightened, while she hurriedly closed her bag and could not locate her jewelry and cosmetics. “I don’t understand hispanic, comprende?”

Then, Ángeles called on the Australian, who had already served two years in prison, to interpret.

The Australian was an elderly woman who had been or was now a grandmother in her country. When she became a widow she found herself in possession of a regular fortune and wanted to travel and explore the world a little. Regrettably, in Sydney, swayed by her freedom and will to live, she became a fan of heroin, so that after touring innumerable beaches and countries, it was here in Guayaquil that she experienced her downfall. She started her own business: five kilos of coke, nun’s habits, the dogs again, and here she is. In any case, she’s a very sweet and loving woman. She enjoys embroidering and bakes delicious pastries. She lives off of that because they confiscated everything. Her family seems to have forgotten her, and although they don’t respond to her letters, she continues to feel happy thinking that distances are impossible and that a lack of love will never dwell in the bosom of her kin. Her only son is the largest breeder of crocodiles for leather in the Queensland region–she shows us on a wrinkled map that she managed to save–and her brother is a pastor of a Methodist church in Wellington, New Zealand; “they’re still alive in my heart.”

We number close to seven hundred female prisoners in this ward. A dark and filthy three-story building that forms part of the city’s prison complex. It was built half a century ago to house no more than two hundred inmates. Now we’re stacked one on top of the other. In the best case, single or double occupancy cells are suitable for six. The bathroom sinks are in disrepair and twice per week we are permitted to wash down the floors and the corners of the corridors. The humidity, the mosquitoes, and the falling pieces of ceiling make this place a real hell. Happily, the mornings are spent in the courtyard, sunbathing and chatting. They bring us out by turns and there is a shift in the afternoon for the dark-skinned inmates, who are the poorest. The live in a frightening misery, to which it seems they’re accustomed because they’re always happy. The noise they create is deafening. They wrestle, fight, and insult each other accompanied by roaring laughter. The topics they argue about are obscene and inspired, after which the rancor disappears and they return to their dreadful lairs.

On the ground floor is the director’s office and the guards lounge. Next to the main building is a ramshackle shed that serves as a kitchen, dining room, and laundry. The enormous space created by the offices on the ground floor allows us to fall into formation during roll calls or when a cell is going to be inspected. The “punishment” or broiler cells, as well as those for “interrogations,” are separated from the building by a small park with playground sets for the children of those inmates who live with them.

Located in one of those open sheds, which is used for interrogations, has no windows, and has been soundproofed, is the headquarters of Greasy, chief of the guards.

He’s an obese, unwashed, and repulsive individual. An expert in water torture, he also uses the methods of suffocation with a plastic bag, blows with boxing gloves–so as not to leave marks–and kicking. On occasion, an advisor from the DEA, the gringo, Jack, personally supervises the torture. It’s only used during drug investigations: what did you buy from whom, the names of your accomplices in Miami or Chicago. They weren’t interested in anything but the entire network, and in order to obtain this information, someone would unscrupulously resort to murder. Several cellmates never returned to relay the details of the interrogations. As part of the ritual, Greasy sexually abused his victims, or intimidated them into prostitution for his own benefit.

“Don’t worry about the gringo, Jack, he only likes the dark-skinned inmates,” the Australian finished interpreting.

Ángeles María meticulously scrutinized the worry written on young Doris’ face. The Australian moved away after a brief silence, having advised her: “Honey, accept the protection you’re being offered, it’s your only solution.” “Yes,” said Doris, “that’s fine, tell her I accept.”

“I’ll explain the terms to you,” Ángeles said to Doris, “and I’ll introduce you to Gloria, she’s our boss.” Then, she pulled out a sharp dagger from the pocket of her skirt and placed it in her hands, and continued, saying: “Take this, you’re going to need it. Don’t hesitate to use it against the guards; tonight they’ll want to rape you. Tomorrow there will no longer be any danger because everyone will know that you belong to us.”

But she was talking to herself since Doris, of course, didn’t understand anything that her greeter was telling her. Through a strange impulse, a mix of fear and stupor, and an instinct of self-preservation, she took the dagger and hid it in her clothes.


Gloria is a heavyset brunette, enormous. Judging by her appearance, she is without a doubt approaching fifty and beyond. Nevertheless, she encases herself into a kind of petticoat made of white fabric, very beautiful and shiny. Her hair, still dark, reached her waist, giving her, despite her age, a sensual and feminine look, her strange and diverse background notwithstanding.

She was serving a twelve-year prison term in maximum security. She had been charged with poisoning an entire basketball team to death. As stated during the trial, she was the manager of a hostel in one of the seaside resorts near the city. A vacationing delegation of athletes was lodging in this hostel with plans to participate in a very important tournament a few days later. One early morning, before they had the opportunity to compete, the ten members were found dead in their respective beds, their horrible groans and screams of pain heard earlier at daybreak. As was expected, the incident stirred up public opinion, which demanded a major investigation into what had occurred.

At first, it was believed that the ingestion of bad seafood was the cause of the tragedy, but then the forensic reports of the medical examiners and, especially, the laboratory test, disproved that theory. Found in the stomachs of the victims were considerable amounts of arsenic residue, the main component of the poison that is used to exterminate rodents, known commercially as “1080.”

The investigation of Gloria, the hostel manager, was exhausting. She denied all responsibility for the course of events until the police found various vials of the poison in one of her wardrobes. Then, she confessed her crime and specified that she had done it to settle accounts. She explained to the judge in detailed petitions that she had been repeatedly raped by the athletes, who furthermore, had paid for purchases up until that day with bad checks, lacking funds.

“I’m not rich, Your Honor, and all of my life I have felt repulsed by men; just imagine, Your Lordship, what I had to go through. I don’t regret what I did. Rats.”

Before all this occurred though, Gloria had worked as the housekeeper for the prison warden. They were inseparable. They had grown up together and the venomous rumors in the ward maintained that they were, in addition to being pals, lovers their entire lives.

Now that they had been brought closer together because of this serious crime, they were extremely happy and vainly shared their enormous power over the prisoners in a democratic manner.

The warden is a frail woman, physically diminished, and no taller than 4’7”. She must be the same age as her accomplice, Gloria, but intellectually, she’s vigorous, has a strong personality, leadership qualities, is the queen of trickery, and epitomizes the excess of greed and refined cruelty along with her brunette.

Officially of course, Gloria is one of the inmates. It’s also known that she is the leader of one of the many secret crews who swarm around the ward; the most powerful one. Its members enjoy all the privileges, comforts, and advantages granted to them by this membership. For example, they inhabit the left wing of the third floor, where there are only two inmates per cell, clean toilets, and furniture that includes televisions, blenders, and stereos. It’s referred to as the “mitigating” ward. Some of its cells have been allocated for a separate dining room, library, lounge area, pantries, and commissaries. The Australian, who interprets the testimony of the torture victims–usually “mules” or drug couriers–for Jack, is one of the beneficiaries of these comforts. In one of those cells she has set up her famous pastry shop. A little sign that reads: “KOALA BAKERY – Art and Flavor” hangs from the top of the cell door.


Paradoxically, in a city where the pages of the police blotter saturate the newspapers–robberies, assaults, murders, rapes–drug trafficking is responsible for two-thirds of the jail population. Of these inmates, a third is comprised of foreigners. The roll call includes English nuns, Spanish office workers, Colombian actresses, Peruvians, Chinese, and unknown others. The United Nations, human rights, patriotic pennants of horror.

The Creole and dark-skinned women, who are packed like sardines on the middle floor, almost don’t count. They survive like virtual animals with their young offspring in filth and promiscuity and don’t have access to the paradise we’re in, nor to the gang law that allows for Gloria’s fine and very wide petticoat. They’re “packagers,” sellers of little envelopes of cocaine base or packs of marijuana, prosecuted for a variety of oregano or parsley; small game.

“The entire floor is ours,” Greasy says to Jack, “all those juicy cattle.”

Greasy recruits the youngest and most attractive from among them for the brothel that he operates in the city under an assumed name. Jack is the first to have sex with them. Unsatisfied with this revenue, when big fishes are arrested, he steals something from the seizures to package.

It’s said that in the prison, Jack is the lead advocate of the latest trends in torture. It has been called the “mouse” exam and basically consists of fastening a metal clip, of the kind used by telephone repairmen and connected to an electric battery by cable, to a woman’s clitoris. Of course, the discharge causes in the woman a pain more terrible and, naturally, less joyous than childbirth. The uterus collapses, internally it’s an inferno, and the temples burst. Jack feels very proud of this “enormous advance in the struggle against drug trafficking”; there isn’t anyone who doesn’t confess, including the date and time of their birth.

The warden officially turns a deaf ear in view of the magnitude of the crime: “I am not responsible for that which I have no knowledge about,” she says.


The recently arrived Doris, one of the most beautiful young women that I’ve ever seen in my life, made the wisest choice she could ever imagine when she accepted the protection offered by Ángeles on behalf of Gloria. It was out of the hands of Jack, Greasy, and the perverted guards. Furthermore, she immediately started to enjoy a series of comforts that would make her stay in prison bearable.

I felt a bit jealous of the refined attentiveness with which Ángeles welcomed Doris. My partner is also beautiful and young–nineteen years old–has dark skin, black hair, and large, almond shaped eyes. She was arrested a year ago for robbing a market and drugs were found hidden in her clothing.

Doris made a pact to provide information to the crew about friends in her country and produce a tally of those individuals in particular who consume drugs.

It was referred to as the “white list” and, unlike the list that Jack supplied through his interrogations, it wasn’t going to end up in the hands of the police. The crew also demanded that Doris hand-write letters to those particular friends, giving them the name of a new supplier, safe and reliable. It was the warden, on behalf of someone unknown, who was in charge of opening up new markets.

“But if I have a little bit, it’s only for my own use,” said Doris.

“No, stupid gringa, give it up,” Gloria said to Doris when she was in her presence.

Doris agreed to submit names the next day, but that night she was obliged to lie naked on the portable bed that the warden had hidden in her office. Only then did the wretched prisoner become aware of the place she had been hurled into by destiny. Doris felt shame, infinite pain, and a humiliation that was drilling into her bones. She cried, losing all sense of time, of herself, of her history.

Weeks before, Doris had been a California office worker, with a good salary and highly regarded by her superiors. She came from a logging family in Oregon, where her parents lived. As soon as she graduated as a secretary, she abandoned the rural landscapes where she’d spent her adolescence. Enormous pines and firs, like an immense sea of green that reflected the blue water of the lake. Old log cabins with small white windows and geraniums. Chimneys spewing out thin streams of smoke and, during the winter, snowmen made from the dawn snow and children wearing hats and scarves. Reindeer.

When Doris emigrated, first to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles in search of work, her little head was made up entirely of a knapsack of dreams.

She grew familiar with Malibu during some brief vacations in Baja and La Jolla, and met Robert, a handsome surfer who would change her life. Just then, she knew about love, the miracle of a partnership, and its warmth which drives away loneliness forever. There was also her fondness for the sea, the light fluttering of the seagulls, and the sunsets of dazzling colors. And, unfortunately, ignoring the terrible consequences caused by the law, substances that are prohibited in an effort to protect men’s health.

“We loved each other, that was all, and I had to share everything with him,” Doris declared.

Together they searched for the waves of Hawaii, the Waimea Walls, and the perfect Pipeline Tube. While riding the wave one brushes by glowworms; it’s incredible, almost rapturous. Because it was Robert who taught her about how to glide over the waves, thongs, fresh seafood, love, life, and she tanned her very beautiful skin into a gold color.

A month ago, they arrived in Montañita to test out her grand and powerful wave. Then, in Guayaquil, someone offered them drugs and they purchased a small amount for their own use. They didn’t count on the dogs’ sharp sense of smell though. Robert managed to escape and when Doris arrived at the ward she still had the burning caress of the sun on her skin.

But, patient reader, I have relayed many histories while omitting my own. It’s all right, I’ll tell it to you, but that is another story.


Carlos Béjar Portilla

Carlos Béjar Portilla was born in Ambato, Ecuador, in 1938. At a very young age he moved to Guayaquil, where he eventually attended law school, graduating with a JD degree at age 24. Almost immediately he abandoned his career as an attorney and dedicated himself to literature. He is the most important chronicler of the sixties, having served as a harbinger for the generation that followed in the next decade. His work is characterized by his incorporation of urban themes and his organization and management of narrative techniques. On three occasions he has received prizes for literature, including First Prize in the José de la Cuadra Concurso Nacional for his book of stories, Simón el Mago, in 1969; Finalist in the Concurso Seix Barral in Barcelona for his novel, Tribu Sí, in 1976; and First Prize in the Concurso Nacional de Novela Diario El Universo, for his novel, Mar Abierto, in 1996. Other works include: Osa Mayor (Stories, 1970), Samballah (Stories, 1971), Puerto de Luna (Stories, 1986), La Rosa de Singapur (Novel, 1990), Los Ángeles También Envejecen y Pluma (Poetry, 1997), Pabellón de Mujeres: Cuentos (Stories, 2003), and Cuentos Fantásticos (Stories, 2004). His short fiction has been published in more than twenty anthologies and his fantastic stories, particularly from the collection, Osa Mayor, have been studied in philosophy and literature classes in major universities in the U.S., where they have been compared to the work of renowned writers of that genre such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov.

Harry Morales

Harry Morales is a Spanish literary translator whose translations include the work of the late Mario Benedetti, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Eugenio María de Hostos, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Alberto Ruy-Sánchez, Ilan Stavans, and Francisco Proaño Arandi, among many other distinguished Latin American writers. His work has been widely published in numerous anthologies and has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Agni, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Mānoa, BOMB, WORLDVIEW, Puerto del Sol, The Iowa Review, Michigan Review, World Literature Today, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Denver Quarterly, and Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, among others. He is the translator of two poetry collections by Mario Benedetti, Only in the Meantime & Office Poems (Host Publications: Austin, Texas, June 2006), and a volume of stories, The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories (Host Publications: Austin, Texas, September 2010). His new English translation of Benedetti’s internationally acclaimed, award-winning novel, La Tregua (The Truce: The Diary of Martín Santomé) was published by Penguin UK Modern Classics in September 2015.

“Pabellón de mujeres.” Copyright (c) Editorial Libresa, 2003. English translation copyright (c) Harry Morales, 2020.