When Zoe Savage was leaving Quito airport in early 2003 she had few thoughts beyond the long flight from the Ecuadorian capital and the husband and two children waiting in her London home. When customs officials asked the 29-year-old, who was brought up in Doneghal, to identify her bag - she immediately pointed it out. She didn't expect them to then pull out the two-and-a-half kilos of cocaine that were expertly sewn into it. Savage, who has founded an orphanage in Africa, was meant to be home the next day. But it was a month before she could bribe a doctor $50 to make a cellphone call to her family. Two years on and the maligned government of President Lucio Gutierrez is promising to reform its much criticised legal system. Savage will soon be released, theoretically, along with many other prisoners. But the wheels of justice move slowly in Ecuador, when not derailed completely. Gareth Mason met Savage in Quito's women's prison, and visited her regularly over the past year...

Sundays at La Carcel De Mujeres is always the busiest day. The many children that share their mothers' cramped cells scurry about the prison along with the visiting families and friends. Most of the twenty or so gringas held here were caught carrying drugs out of the country. It seemed like easy money and, most, cheerfully admit their guilt. All except an American woman and an Irish freelance journalist called Zoe Savage. They say they were set up.

Zoe went to South America from England to help a Nigerian friend with a visa problem. She knew the man from her London church and was staying with him and his girlfriend. The day before Zoe's flight home her 'friend' took some of her shopping back to his flat. It included a new suitcase. She didn't see this bag again till the next day. And since that day she hasn't seen or heard from her friend. No-one has. For Zoe, the rest is history. Arrested and unable to communicate in Spanish, she was thrown into a mixed cell where she was assaulted by a guard. She paid $19,000 to her first lawyer who did nothing.

Eighteen months later, Zoe, who needs regular treatment for her one kidney, was sentenced to eight years despite Ecuadorian law stating that prisoners not sentenced within a year should walk free. Ecuador's anti-drugs policy is heavily influenced by the United States. And US policy reckons that more convictions will keep the cocaine lines off the users tables. But the drug flows north undiminished through the Americas while little people are arrested. Higher, and safer, up the cocoa food chain, billions of dollars still roll in for the bigger fish. So releasing suspected drug traffickers, even the suspiciously innocent, is frowned upon, when there's no-one else to blame.

This makes some people feel bad. Like Zoe's arresting officer, who rings her most weeks, and never thought she was guilty. Or the man who sent me details of the flaws in her trial. So it's difficult to sound balanced and objective with no-one standing up for the prosecution. From the Irish consul who went to her trial, to fellow prisoners, visitors, and human rights groups - I didn't find a person who doubted her innocence. In recent months, a question was asked in the Dail, and even Oprah Winfrey tried to get her cameras in.

A few months ago, Zoe was told she would soon be released as her late sentencing was against the constitution. But such good news soon develops a bitter-sweet taste in a country where people feel happier telling you what you want to hear. Zoe's long red hair and pale complexion stands out from the brown skins and raven-coloured locks of the Latin prisoners. Amidst its noise and chaos, she can often be found showing wide-eyed visitors about the crowded, corridors and courtyards or entertaining the child of a cellmate. Here, the air is thick with the babble of voices and the fumes from the prisoners foodstands offering palatable alternatives to the fetid cauldron of slop provided.

The jail's human flotsam and jetsam is filled to overflowing more than twice over. Cash is king and covers everything from renting a cell to paying the guards' overdue wages. A $20 loan from the local moneyshark soon inflates to $100. Zoe now gets by in Spanish and pays her way cooking shepherds pies and patees and the decorating rooms of other inmates. She has even written a book about her experience. She speaks to her family regularly by phone but hasn't seen them during her time inside.

After two long years, Zoe can now tell her story with some detachment. She survives this foreign maze through her faith in God without understanding the mysterious ways that brought her here. But the fire in her eye still flickers - before dampened by a tear - when she talks about her yearning for justice and her family waiting for her far away. But for now - still lost in this Kafkaesque nightmare - all she can do is wait.

This is Gareth Mason for World Report from Quito, Ecuador.

RTE, Spring 2005