When an Argentine judge sentenced her daughter Angie Sanclemente Valencia to six years and eight months in prison for trafficking in drugs on Wednesday, Yanneth Valencia Alfonso knew exactly who to blame: she turned and slapped Ariel Letizia, the man whose testimony—false, she says—implicated Sanclemente as a leader of an international drug-trafficking ring that was sending models with briefcases of cocaine from Argentina to Mexico.
Sanclemente’s trip to prison began on December 13, 2009, when a model named María Noel López Iglesias was stopped in Buenos Aires’s international airport as she was preparing to board a flight to Cancún with 121 pounds of cocaine. The model mule led police to an apartment in Buenos Aires where they arrested three others, including Letizia, who, after fracturing a bone while jumping from a balcony in an escape attempt, decided to turn state’s evidence.
At the time, Sanclemente, a 30-year-old actress and model who was once chosen “Coffee Queen” of her native Colombia, was recently arrived in Argentina from Mexico, where she’d lived for eight years and where she had met an Argentine male model named Nicolás Gualco, 27, who’d recently proposed marriage to her. She had come to Argentina in November 2009 to meet Gualco’s family, she says. The prosecution told a different story: that she came to launch a criminal enterprise, which aimed to transport cocaine to Europe via Mexico.
Everything went sideways for Sanclemente in January 2010, when Gualco went out to buy a phone card and never returned. Soon, she says, she discovered that he had been arrested as a suspected kingpin in the drug-trafficking case. Sanclemente went on the lam before being arrested in a Buenos Aires student hostel in May of that year. She had 30 pesos (about $7) on her person.
Today, Sanclemente shares a 430-square-foot prison dorm room with six other prisoners—“Also victims of injustice… who are innocent,” she tells The Daily Beast by phone from her prison in the first interview with an American news organization since her sentencing on Thursday. The prison is in Ezeiza, the town that’s also home to Buenos Aires’s international airport. The simple, yellow-painted dorm, reserved for well-behaved prisoners, has a small kitchenette, two bathrooms, and a phone; the dorm has its own set of rules, including no smoking and a 10-minute limit on calls, so that everyone can use the phone. She is now known in the Argentine press as the “narco-model” and has seen her case fictionalized in La diosa coronada, a Telemundo telenovela about a woman who escapes from grinding poverty by becoming a drug kingpin.
Sanclemente paints herself as an innocent victim of a faulty justice system predisposed to accept false testimony and convict her because of Colombian drug-dealer stereotypes. “My being a Colombian influenced the case, because you know the problems with drug-trafficking in my country,” she says. “For the judge, my being Colombian made me the international drug connection.”
Sanclemente’s mother has moved to be near her daughter, living in a Buenos Aires pension and visiting the prison every Friday, where Sanclemente makes parts for piñatas. The imprisoned actress’s three pets—two cats named Luci and Costantini and a Pomeranian named Stuart—live in Mar del Plata with her future mother-in-law.
According to Sanclemente, she first learned about her fiance’s illegal activity after his arrest. A friend of his had already been arrested in the case and she called the friend’s lawyer, who found that Gualco had been detained and was being held incommunicado. When she was declared a suspect soon after, Gualco called her cellphone, she says, and told her how his uncle, Daniel Monroy, had recruited him to help the business. He had nothing to do with the drug business before returning to Argentina, she says. “Nicolás got involved in the drug trafficking here. I met Nicolás because he was one of the best models in Mexico. He did fashion shows in Mexico. He’s 6’3”, blue-eyed, incredibly handsome. He was a normal chico. His uncle tempted him for business. It was a family business,” she says. “I came here to meet Nicolás’s mother, the uncle, the family, and I ended up involved in all this.”
The strongest evidence against Sanclemente was Letizia’s testimony and a phone call Sanclemente made in which she asked Monroy to call Fermin, an alleged Mexican kingpin, she says. But according to Sanclemente, the phone call was only a favor for her fiancé, who asked her to tell his uncle to call Fermin because he was worried that someone was going to kill him. “Nicolás declared himself guilty and that he was the one who’d had me make the call. I accepted. I knew that something strange was going on, something illicit. But I knew nothing of drug trafficking, because in the call I made no one referred to drugs or money or anything,” she says. “I just told my boyfriend’s uncle that he should call Fermin.”
Like Sanclemente, Monroy and Gualco received sentences of six years and eight months.
The former lingerie model chalks Letizia’s testimony up to his simple desire to save his own skin. “I have no idea why Ariel accused me. I met Ariel once through my boyfriend. I met all the suspects through my boyfriend. I don’t know if Ariel was trying to get revenge on my boyfriend for something or what. I don’t know or care who he is. I know that he supposedly sold drugs, that they found drugs and arms when they searched his house. The only one who named me was Ariel. I think he did it to get his liberty. He hid under a woman’s skirt to get his liberty,” she says. Letizia received a suspended three-year sentence.
Besides being jailed unjustly in her eyes, there is something else that bothers Sanclemente: the constant title of “narco-model.” Surprisingly, it’s not just the first part of the moniker that irks her, but the second. “I’m not a model,” she says. “I’m an actress. I always studied theater. I worked in movies, in soap operas. I’m not a model. I’m not made for that. They’re 5-foot-11 and incredibly beautiful. I’m a normal woman. I did some commercials, some campaigns, but I’m not a model. I’m 5-foot-7. I became an actress because I love art, not to be famous. I love the transmission of feelings. When the public is there, their smiles are my payment.”