A few years ago a foreigner was riding his bicycle through Parque Lourdes in Bogota and noticed another foreigner walking down the street wearing an old, green St. Patrick’s Day t-shirt. The rider, an Irishman, and the pedestrian, an American, struck up a conversation.
Today, tourists wearing every colour of the rainbow are a common sight all over the city, but the two that crossed paths that day were no ordinary gringos. One was Christopher Kavanagh, a career criminal and addict turned English teacher who has spent the better part of 30 years in Colombia. The other was Colin Post, an American writer who has made a name for himself through his blog, Expat Chronicles. The two became good friends and through a series of video and audio recordings of Kavanagh telling his life story, ‘Mad Outta Me Head’ was born.
Post adeptly traces Kavanagh’s upbringing in a gritty part of Dublin during the 1960s and 70s. The story is frank and shocking from the outset, and holds nothing back in detailing his induction into a life of crime at an early age, his time in a juvenile detention centre and the subsequent sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest – all the way to a chance encounter with a Colombian in Europe who convinces Kavanagh to travel to Colombia to work as a drug mule so he can feed what has become a crippling heroin addiction.
In 1986, Kavanagh was arrested at El Dorado airport with four kilos of cocaine in two suitcases, along with his girlfriend and a Colombian accomplice. His girlfriend discovered she was pregnant, and Kavanagh agreed to take the fall in exchange for her to be sent back to Ireland. He would spend the next four years in Bogota’s notorious La Modelo Prison, where he would learn to avoid daily violence, and to befriend thieves, drug addicts and killers, and start to speak Spanish with a turn of phrase unique to Colombia’s underworld.
This is Colombia’s answer to the book Marching Powder – that mainstay of backpackers the length and breadth of the continent, with Post playing the role of chronicler Rusty Young, and Kavanagh as Thomas McFadden, the drifter and failed drug smuggler who has to endure a chamber of horrors found in few other places than in a Latin American prison.
‘Mad Outta Me Head’ is a portrait of a man whose drug- and alcohol-fueled existence strips the romanticism that sometimes surrounds Colombia’s criminal underworld.
By Mark Kennedy