I feel the need to inform people of this bizarre prison I have learnt about in La Paz, Bolivia. I read this book recommend by a friend called Marching Powder. It was a griping read about an English drug trafficker who got banged up in 1 of South America’s most notorious prison, San Pedro. In this unbelievable jail a prisoner must pay for everything from their cell to their food, protection money, hearings for their court case and multiple bribes to the guards for day to day living. The prision is divided in classes from the homeless to the wealthy, living in cells fancier than most Bolivian people’s houses! Prisoners can, and often do, move their families into the prison therefore in this male jail there are many women and children living behind bars. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, paying rent for a cell inside prison and a house outside prison is unrealistic therefore many families live behind these bars. The children can leave during the day to go to school and the women to work, normally to sell goods or local produce in the market. The jail is also notorious for producing the worlds cheapest and purest cocaine – yes inside the prison grounds! This is also used as a means to make a living for the prisoners, after customers on the inside it is smuggled out by a number of ways, a baby’s nappy thrown over the wall to the local park, taken out by visitors, or by the guards who not only turn a blind but often part take in the producing, consuming and selling of the drug. San Pedro prison is literally like a mini city slap bang in the middle of Bolivia’s largest city, La Paz.
There are many businesses inside the prison, hair dressers, restaurants, convenient stores; you name it they have it. Prisoners must make a living to survive inside as there are no living expenses provided. The main character in the book had made a reasonable living in San Pedro by offering tours of the prison to backpackers; as soon as I read it I knew I wanted to visit!
The prison is well known on the South American backpackers trail, many travellers passing through La Paz have heard stories of the prison or tried, mostly in vain to get in.
After the main character in the book stopped offering tours they were taken over by less reliable inmates with less accountability for travellers safety.There we some horror stories of inmates swapping identities with visitors and inquisitive backpackers being stuck inside, women being raped, men beat up, visitors having to pay extortionate bribes to get their way out. The Bolivian government didn’t like the reputation this was bringing the country and so put an end to any tours 4 years ago and ‘gringos’ (foreigners) were no longer allowed into the prison. Word on the backpacking scene is there are some contacts that can get you inside the prison. I heard a few people say an aid worker can get you in if you pay him a ridiculous amount of money and can go on a Sunday! I got a contact for this worker and kept it at the back of my mind hoping we’d get more options when we arrived at the city of La Paz, where the prison is based.
So we arrive in La Paz and, like in most cities we first arrive in, we took advantage of the free walking tour! This tour started outside the prison so was the perfect place to scope any potential for getting in. As we stood outside trying to take sneaky pics before the angry guards told us off, we were approached by a rugged, outgoing American guy called Dave. Dave looked like a typical homeless guy, unfortunately of which there are many in la paz, his observations of our interest in the prison give him a reason to approach us. He said he’s an inmate of the prison, out on day release. Orginally from New York, he got banged up in San Pedro for trying to smuggle coke 14 years ago. He talked a lot about the book, the characters in it, life behind the walls and the opportunity of gaining access to the prison. According to Dave you could see the rich end of the prison if you just paid off the warden, the general and any other authority who fancied a bit of extra cash that day! Dave then held out his hand for a small donation! I doubt Dave was ever a prisoner of San Pedro, especially when another traveller said he tried to sell them coke the night before! Id say he was more likely someone who seen an opportunity for some extra cash with hundreds of keen tourists looking into the prison, however he played the role well!
When our actual tour guide for the free walking tour showed up they give us some factual information about the prison. Initally build as a monastery it was later turned into a prison, built to house 400 prisoners, it is now above its full capacity housing 2500 of la paz population. This overcrowded is mainly down to the tough Bolivian drug laws; if you are caught in the same room as cocaine you could potentially be charged with possession and can get 8 years in lovely San Pedro. Bolivian laws don’t believe in innocent until proven guilty, its the opposite so many prisons are held on remand for countless years. As appearing in court is not an entitlement but a privileged that each prisoner must pay for many prisoners can never afford to go to trail and so are imprisoned indefinitely. Bearing in mind that cocaine is on every street corner in la paz, if you lived here it would actually be difficult to avoid being in the same room as the drug, therefore according to this law the whole nation could potentially be behind these bars! And when behind bars you are not only a prison of the state, you are a human with no rights. This is corruption at it’s best/worst. The icing on the cake was when the guides told us that coca cola have rights to all the soft drinks sold in the prison! The restaurants and shops are only allowed to sell coca cola products, one a week the coca cola van pulls up outside the prison and offloads the delivery as though it’s to the local supermarket!
I hate corruption and everything it stands for but this system/city/prison doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon! I’ve one more day in la paz but I haven’t given up on getting into the prison without having to hand over the bulk of my weekly budget to an ‘aid’ worker!!
Hopefully you’re intrigued enough to read the book Marching Powder by Rusty Young, its fascinating. Brad Pitt has bought the rights of the book and will be directing a film about it in the next few years, it will be interesting to see how that influences the corruption train of San Pedro!