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Colombian man in Japan since childhood on trial for fraud led isolated, insecure life

Maicol is seen in this image, re-creating times in his life when he slept in his stepfather's car, or in parks, in this image taken on Feb. 14, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuro Tamaki)
A draft of a letter of contrition Maicol wrote to a fraud victim while in detention is seen in this partially modified Jan. 24, 2020 image. (Mainichi/Tomoyuki Hori)

During his trial for fraud in January, Maicol, a 26-year-old Colombian national living in Japan, asked the Tokyo District Court if it would give him one more chance to be a part of society.

His defense argued that his Japanese had been insufficient for him to realize he was involved in fraudulent activities, but the prosecution maintained that the reality of such crimes in Japan is common knowledge, and sought a prison sentence of 5 1/2 years.

Maicol came to Japan 15 years ago. But testimonies at the court and from people connected to him painted a picture of a victim who was increasingly isolated from Japanese society.

Maicol's mother married a Japanese man, and in around 2005 they had him brought to the country. He started at an elementary school in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, entering the fifth grade. He struggled to improve the Japanese he would study after school, and was continually mocked by his peers.

When he advanced to junior high school, the scale of the bullying escalated too. Once he was goaded by his classmates into touching two sticks of lead for mechanical pencils that had been inserted into a plug socket. When the electricity shook through his body, the other children howled with laughter. Because he couldn't speak Japanese, he was unable to tell the teacher what had happened.

Maicol said he teared up with sadness at the time, but that he didn't want to cause worry for his older sister or for his parents who were caught up in their jobs.

He passed a test aimed at foreign nationals to enter a technical high school, but the difficult financial situation at home led him to give up going to the institution. He sat countless interviews with different companies, but many told him that there was no way they would hire a foreigner, and he ended up going from one insecure job to another. His stepfather had also lost his work, so he couldn't rely on him for help. At one point Maicol even spent two weeks sleeping under a bridge.

In September 2015, Maicol was doing irregular work at a pizza factory in a town in the eastern Japan prefecture of Ibaraki when the area was consumed by muddy water from the Kinu River overflowing in torrential rain. Maicol escaped unscathed, but then realized there were many people left behind in the town's buildings.

He decided to go back, and leapt into the current. The muddy water came up to his face, but he ended up helping rescue over 10 people including children and the elderly. His dramatic efforts were even reported on in newspapers, but he wasn't able to return to his apartment due to damage from the disaster, and the distance from the evacuation center to the factory wasn't walkable. He lost his work again.

In the spring of 2018, Maicol was again out of a job. It was then that a Peruvian acquaintance he had met several times introduced him to a young Japanese man offering work conveying documents. Maicol and his common-law wife, who is also of Peruvian nationality, had just welcomed a daughter, and jumped at the proposal.

The man, who told them his name was Kato, was dressed in a black suit. Maicol said he thought he was an employee at a worker dispatch company. When Kato offered work related to collecting real estate documents, he noticed Maicol had a tattoo on his neck. Kato asked if he knew other people who could do the work too, and Maicol introduced him to his wife and his older sister.

Maicol said they were instructed to go somewhere, collect envelopes full of documents from elderly people, and then hand them on to a third party. Even after his wife completed one of the jobs from Kato for the first time, she wasn't suspicious, saying, "Perhaps it's difficult for older people to walk all the way to the real estate agent's office."

They were paid between 30,000 and 50,000 yen for each task, and Kato would pay them cash in person.

One day, Maicol received a call from his wife. Her voice trembled, "There's tons of money inside (the envelope)." Wads of cash were reportedly visible from the opening of an envelope she had just received from an elderly man.

Concerned his wife was being used to carry cash, Maicol confronted Kato. On being questioned, Kato's attitude changed in an instant, and he reportedly said to Maicol: "What do you think will happen if you report this to the police? You've got a kid, too." He realized then that he was involved in dangerous work, but that for the sake of his daughter he felt all he could do was keep going.

Some weeks later, he saw his wife on their television at home. She was being taken away by the police. Two months later, he too was arrested under suspicion of being an accomplice. Police explained to him that the work involved accepting fraudulently obtained money. He was subsequently indicted for involvement in cases that swindled eight people (one of them was an attempted case) out of some 15 million yen (about $135,330) over two months.

He then spent around a year under detention, and was granted bail at the end of 2019. At the trial, he told the court that he couldn't understand the news in Japanese, and he didn't have people he could turn to. The defense said, "His academic ability is at the junior high school level. He didn't even know that these forms of fraud are rampant across society." It argued that a suspended sentence would be the appropriate ruling for Maicol's case.

The prosecution argued for a harsh punishment, saying, "He has lived in Japan since he was an elementary school student, and was aware of the possibility it was fraud." The ruling will be handed down on March 5.

While in detention, Maicol wrote letters of contrition to the fraud victims. The initial drafts that remain in his possession were indicative of a limited understanding of Japanese. They were written almost exclusively in phonetic hiragana characters, and with a number of errors.

(Japanese original by Tomoyuki Hori, City News Department)

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