Kahlila Saleem is one of the mothers on the “Smuggler Moms” episode of National Geographic’s Locked Up Abroad. She was arrested in 2001 and spent over five years in a Cuban prison after attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the country and to Paris.
The “Smuggler Moms” episode will detail Saleem’s life before and after being locked up. It will also detail the circumstances that led to her arrest and offer an update on her life.
After originally appearing on an episode of Locked Up Abroad highlighting Cuba, Saleem spoke on “The Where’s Buffy? Podcast” in 2015 to share some information about her life. Listen to the episode of the podcast here.
Here’s what you should know about her:
1. Saleem Grew Up in Philadelphia
Kahlilah Saleem grew up as a Muslim in the northern part of Philadelphia. Those roots are still something she points to for how she understands the world, especially when she thinks about her relationships with men.
She got married at 17 years old; her father performed the ceremony.
“Growing up as a female, it wasn’t like, okay, well, you graduate high school and go to college,” she said. “As a woman, it was ‘you graduate high school, and you get married.'”
Saleem said that was just what was expected of her at the time. By the time she met Roy, she had a three-year-old daughter.
2. She Was 22 When She Met Roy
Saleem met Roy when she was 22 years old through his sister. At the time, Saleem knew he was “in the life” at the time. She said that his sister said she was Roy’s type.
The year was 1999, and they dated for two years. Saleem moved to Vegas after visiting Roy there three months into their relationship. She thought that Roy was bipolar at the time.
“Vegas was the first place where I was okay with being a black skinny girl…” Saleem said on The Where’s Buffy Podcast. “It was the first place where I really felt comfortable in my skin.”
Saleem picked up a gambling habit in Vegas, saying she had a lot of money and would spend up to two days at a time at the casino. She played black jack, roulette, craps, and pretty much everything except for slots. Roy thought that she was cheating on her since she was away from home so much.
“He beat me something terrible to the point where I was walking around with a walking concussion,” she said.
That’s when they decided to take a trip to South America; it was an apology trip because her boyfriend had threatened her so many times and she wanted to leave him. They went to Panama for a carnival.
3. Saleem Was Abandoned In Panama
Saleem said that Roy introduced her to many new experiences. She tasted her first champagne with him and bought a Jaguar with him. On their trip to Panama, they had a great time.
Roy came back to the hotel room one day hyperventilating. He told her that he was heading back to the states and she would have to stay in Panama for the rest of the week. They’d meet up in Paris, he told her.
“He was producing some rap nobodies,” she said. “And he said he had to go back and they were gonna sign a deal… but he didn’t want to mess up our vacation.”
Before he left, he told her he’d give her some money. He also left her with a black bag that he told her she could fill with whatever she wanted, specifically new clothes for their trip to Paris. She couldn’t get ahold of Roy for a few days, and she was still struggling with the concussion she had from before they left.
Roy had Saleem’s daughter with him back in Vegas, and when they talked for the first time in two days, he asked her specifically about the black bag he had left with her.
“Here I am thinking I am in another country, with, I’m telling myself ‘something,'” she said. “I knew what the something is, but I’m telling myself this because if I don’t, I’m gonna freak out. And if I freak out, what happens to me?… so I felt like I really need to play this out and get this out of the way, go to Vegas, and get my daughter.”
4. She Was Warned to Not Get on the Plane
Saleem was left in Panama for over a week by herself. After that, Roy told her to get on a bus to Costa Rica. The bus was “a cultural experience” and there were chickens on the bus. She made it through a checkpoint to get into Costa Rica where there were dogs that searched the bags. The dogs didn’t alert on the bag, so she made it into the country.
She spent a week alone in Costa Rica at just 23 years old. She calls that experience “exhilarating,” but says she had to miss her daughter’s birthday while out of the country. She had to travel from Costa Rica to Cuba, and then Cuba to Paris. She spent one night in Cuba before being able to travel out the next day.
Saleem met another woman who seemed to be in the same situation as she was while in Cuba. They got a hotel room together and talked about what was going on; the woman told Saleem that she was a student and she needed to get out of the country, so Saleem should not get on the plane. The woman told an attendant about Saleem’s luggage after getting on the plane.
5. She Spent Over Five Years in Prison
After being pulled out of line, Saleem knew that she had been caught.
“My life is over,” she said. “I’m feeling like my life is over because I know that no amount of clothing weighed what that bag weighed. I had eight kilos with me… that’s about 16 pounds.”
They told her that she’d be facing 15 to 30 years after finding the drugs, but she ended up spending six years in a ‘horrific’ Cuban prison. She received the news that her daughter was safe with her mother, though, and Roy was on the run, so she was grateful for that.
“I coped by remembering my happy moments at home, and also my daughter,” she said. “Prison made me grateful for the small things people take for granted everyday, family, and the importance of having necessities. The biggest lesson I learned is freedom is priceless.”
She didn’t get to see her daughter again until her daughter was 12 years old.
For more information about the story, listen to Kahlilah Saleem’s interview on the Where’s Buffy Podcast here and tune in to National Geographic on Feb 5 at 8 p.m. ET/PT to watch the “Smuggler Moms” episode.