BEIJING – Rosalia Amarilla stepped into the international terminal of Beijing's cavernous main airport on the afternoon of July 24, 2012, wearing more than 7 pounds (3 kilograms) of cocaine stuffed into her underwear and bra.
An acquaintance named Carlos had given the 31-year-old Paraguayan the drug-filled undergarments to wear in Sao Paulo, Brazil, before she boarded a flight to Doha, Qatar, and then Beijing. Security officials nabbed her before she could meet two Chinese waiting for her outside the airport.
Chinese prosecutors and her defenders agree that is how the clothes vendor ended up in a women's prison far from home, awaiting execution on drug trafficking charges. Paraguayan prosecutors and diplomats, as well as human rights activists, argue that Amarilla was forced to carry the narcotics and should not be put to death.
Her plight has become a cause celebre in her small South American home country and a controversy internationally. Paraguayan senators have signed letters demanding her release, and her friends and former high school classmates have marched through the streets of the capital of Asuncion demanding she come home. Earlier this month, the country's top diplomat brought up Amarilla's case with his Chinese counterparts during a meeting in Beijing of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, according to Paraguay's Foreign Ministry.
Santiago Fiorio, an official with the ministry's human rights department, said the Chinese have revealed the courts will review the case in July. The Chinese Foreign Ministry added more details in a statement, saying the Beijing High Court approved a two-year suspension of her death sentence in July 2013. Judicial authorities in China often commute death sentences to life in prison or other non-capital punishments after such suspensions. Amarilla's court-appointed Chinese defense attorney, Bai Baoli, declined to comment.
Back at home, the woman's older sister Patricia Amarilla said her family is hoping the campaign to save Rosalia will shed light not only on her case, but on those of other Paraguayan women who have been forced to serve as drug mules for international traffickers, usually under threat.
Patricia said the family lost contact with Rosalia for about six months before learning that she had been sentenced to death — a typical punishment in a country where drug offenses are severely disciplined.
"We want this to be an example so that there are no more women in this situation," the sister said. "We're hoping that we will see Rosalia coming home."
Elba Nunez, the regional coordinator of CLADEM, a Latin American women's rights group, said it's unknown how many women share Amarilla's plight but called the trafficking of Paraguayans in particular a "grave and very dangerous problem."
Fiorio said some 3,000 Paraguayans now sit in foreign jails but couldn't say how many were being held for drug trafficking.
With Paraguay already a regional smuggling hot spot for everything from electronics to illicit cash, it's also a source country for women and children subjected to the sex trade, and for forced labor, according to the U.S. State Department.
A clip from Chinese TV news shows another Paraguayan woman, Eulalia Duarte Estigarribia, caught at Beijing's airport with cocaine stuffed into her undergarments. Neither Nunez nor Fiorio knew the circumstances of Duarte's arrest, and neither could say whether she had been forced into carrying the drugs.
In Amarilla's case, Paraguayan prosecutors have identified her as a victim of human trafficking even as they continue investigating how she was brought from Paraguay to China, said Alice Resquin, an official in the prosecutors' human trafficking department.
Rosalia Vega, the executive director of human rights group Amnesty International in Paraguay, said, "We know she's been threatened, as have her family."
Nunez said CLADEM has devoted itself to locating and aiding such people caught in trafficking rings.
"It's mainly women who are victims, who are looking for better work," she said. "We want to know how many cases there are in China and in the region. These are extremely dangerous international networks who make a practice of doing this."
Nunez said Amarilla was first approached by an acquaintance in Paraguay in 2012 to travel with him to buy clothes in Brazil that she could sell back home. According to a document from the Beijing 2nd Intermediate People's Court provided to the Paraguayan Foreign Ministry and then translated into Spanish, the acquaintance, Carlos, told Amarilla she could travel on to China to buy more goods but, a day before her departure from Sao Paulo, asked her to wear weighted-down undergarments.
The court document said Amarilla suspected the undergarments held drugs but was promised $7,000 if she delivered them to China. While acknowledging Amarilla was ordered to carry the drugs by third parties, the court maintained her death sentence, although with a two-year suspension, due to the offense's "level of damage to society."
In its report on Amarilla's case, CLADEM said her traffickers were also being sought in the cases of other Paraguayan women who were trapped "under severe threat" and "who remain for weeks and even months under their traffickers' control."
Once in court, Amarilla was not given an opportunity to talk to her attorney, Bai, before the session and at least one of two hearings was not translated into Spanish, Nunez said.
"She didn't understand what was going on around her," Nunez said. "She didn't receive a proper trial."
Further complicating the case, Amarilla's family had to work through the Argentine Embassy in Beijing because Paraguay doesn't have official diplomatic relations with China.
Now, Amarilla's sister said, the family has learned that she's being forced to work in a Beijing prison manufacturing sofas and chairs in exchange for room and board, again a common practice in China's justice system. The Beijing 2nd Intermediate People's Court didn't respond to requests from AP seeking comment.
With the case review coming up and her execution still a possibility, Paraguayan prosecutors are rushing to finish detailed investigations into exactly how Amarilla ended up in Beijing and who brought her.
"It's a big problem here," Vega said, "and many people are watching this case now."