August 26, 2008

San Pedro Prison, La Paz, Bolivia

"Don´t worry. He´s not going to hurt you. He´s only a murderer," former drug-trafficker S told me as I peered into a punishment cell. I began to laugh but my face dropped as I realised the lack of sarcasm in what he had said.

I had voluntarily entered one of South America´s most notorious jails having heard rumours about it for the past few weeks of my trip. San Pedro is unique in that it is not the prison guards who are in charge but the prisoners themselves. As S later said, "This door," pointing at his cell door, "is not to keep me in, but to keep the guards out." Like every other prisoner, he held his own key.

Earlier that day, I had walked up to the gates of San Pedro and asked the guards if I could have a look around.

"Of course, come in," they said. Surely it´s not that easy. I hesitated.

"Do you want my passport, some money?" I asked.

"No, just carry on."

I had heard so many conflicting stories about the best method of entering this prison, probably in part due to the number of people I´d asked about it. They all gave a different reply.

"It´s easy, just walk in with your passport. You´ll be fine," was my favourite response, though I didn´t quite believe it would be that simple. The most elaborate response was a lady who gave me a long talk on getting past the guards using scams including naming a prisoner I wanted to visit (which she provided) to arriving with a bag full of childrens´ toys and claiming that I wanted to help out the orphans who lived there. I decided to play it by ear.

I had arrived in Plaza San Pedro and though unmarked, the prison building stands out a mile off. Taking up an entire side of the plaza, the muddy stone building has only two entrances. The main one, I later found out, was for Bolivians and South American visitors. It was guarded by at least half a dozen heavily armed guards. To the left, however, was a small side entrance. I chanced it with this one, mainly due to the lack of weaponry on display, and I struck lucky as this was the tourist entrance.

I carried on, towards the prison bars where I saw a small square with kiosks and Coca Cola logos in its corners. A man in a yellow t-shirt waved me over.

"Do you want a tour?" he asked in perfect English. His name was O, a Bolivian. He tried to persuade me that it was safe. He showed people around all the time, he claimed. I could see no other tourists, however.

I knew that the prison guards had, once, allowed tourists to wander around quite freely with prisoner guides (for a bribe, of course). After the publication of a book about the place, however, the government had cracked down (in the soft way that only the Bolivian government can) by putting up a sign proclaiming, "No Turistas." The tours had continued, however, as the guards were so eager to take bribes.

Still the only tourist, O began to persuade me that I´d be okay. The guards nodded in agreement. I asked if I could take my camera in. No. No way would I be allowed to do that. "Pagaré mas, I will pay more," I said. No, was still the reply. This made me more hesitant as I´d have to leave a few hundred pounds worth of photographic equipment with a corrupt Bolivian police force. I handed it over, half not expecting to see it again. It would be an interesting call to my insurance company.

Two gringos came over. They hadn´t bothered to try to hide their tourist status like I had, and they were welcomed as easily as I was. This was all I needed to reassure me, so visitor number one that day and the two gringos were escorted through the gates by the guards, and up to S´s ´cell´ by O.

S was a fast talking, foul mouthed South African with a huge head of hair and a beard to match. It would cost me 35 USD for as much time as I wanted to spend inside. This was dutifully collected by a lady called L, whose purpose seemed solely to be a verbal punch bag for S. The money would go straight to the guards, she claimed. They paid off nineteen officials (guards, the governor, the Minister of Prisons) with 900 USD every day. They later asked for donations to the section ´foundation´ which helped foreigners who had no money and helped maintain the area. Remember, prison officials did nothing to this end. I later learned that this ´foundation´ was most likely L and S´s pockets.

I was in the Posta section, reserved for foreigners and rich Bolivians. It had once been the sector for the richest of the rich including the continent´s most powerful drug barons and its highest ranking politicians who would have champagne breakfasts in the square I had seen earlier. J, who I would later meet, would revel in the fact that he had bought his cell—you buy your cell; you are not assigned one—from a prisoner who had dined regularly with Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord immortalised in the Mark Bowden book and later film, ´Killing Pablo´.

The cells are not cells at all but rooms that are favourably comparable to those that many backpackers stay in in La Paz. S and L were watching wresting on their crystal clear cable TV connection. They claimed to have hot water twenty four hours a day. "Si, tenemos agua calliente," was a lie that many hostel staff would tell backpackers to entice their custom all over the continent. S even joked that here was the only place in South America that you could flush toilet paper down the toilet.

Whether true or not, this was no third world prison in the expected sense. I asked whether S considered San Pedro a punishment. "I spent three years on death row in Pakistan," he replied. "That was a punishment." He had been pardoned, he claimed, personally by President Musharraf when he wrote him a letter. Unfortunately for S, he had been caught again, trafficking 5 kg of cocaine on the Bolivian border.

He loved San Pedro though. He had prolonged his stay there by claiming not to speak English or Spanish, only Afrikaans. There was no way the Bolivian government were going to bother finding him a translator.

He explained that Posta was very different to the other sectors, which were for South American criminals. "What would happen if we went over there?" we asked. S pointed at the boys in the group and told us that we´d be knifed and then told a nervous girl that she´d be raped and her earrings ripped out.

This was collectively known as the Population section and was the subject of Rusty Young´s 2003 book Marching Powder which tells the story of a prisoner here. It has been banned by the Bolivian government, in an attempt to hide the corruption that is rife in this country but photocopies change hands for large amounts of money in hostels, restaurants and (in my case) buses frequented by tourists. It is rumoured that Brad Pitt will be starring in a film version of the book in the next couple of years, no doubt raising the prison´s profile.

Everything costs money in San Pedro. To this end, it has an economy that the prisoners claim is more efficient than the one outside. S loved to tell us that anything you could get on the outside, you could get inside—there were restaurants and shops. But the great thing about San Pedro was, according to S, that there was one thing that you couldn´t get outside that you could inside. And that was the world´s purest and most potent cocaine.

"Just on the other side of that wall," he told us as we walked around the square with him, "is where it is made." Raw ingredients were brought in and processed in the so-called laboratories that were overseen by men who knew exactly what they were doing, as they had done on the outside. Most criminals were inside for drug offences, a smaller minority for murder and rape etc.

There was a definite hierarchy, though S liked to claim every prisoner was equal, this was clearly not the case. Those with money had better rooms, better drugs and a better lifestyle than those without. Those who had a useful trade or skill would be able to make money from it, just as the protagonist in Marching Powder had done with his English language tours. That money would raise them up in the hierarchy. It would, of course, help if you were tough and could speak Spanish, or better were South American. Money on the outside was the ideal, and with their connections, many in the drug trade had access to this.

"This is where the best cocaine in the world is made," S continued as he directed us past the gym, the bar complete with pool table and kiosks selling food and drink, to his ´son´ J´s room. J was high. J was always high. The South African would sniff a huge amount of cocaine from his hand literally every few minutes for the five or so hours we were with him the rest of that afternoon.

He had been caught selling cocaine in a hotel in Bolivia. I asked why he had not offered a bribe to the police. He said that he had set himself up. He knew that he would end up in San Pedro and that was what he wanted.

J was agitated. He was talking rubbish and didn´t seem to hear many of our questions. We later discovered, while talking to him, that he had had a nail put through his ear drum the previous day as he had wandered into the other sections. I asked why. He laughed and told me that it was due to his lack of greed. People wanted him to care more about money and he just didn´t. This was confirmed to us as he dished out packet after packet of cocaine to his guests. He would drink only Sprite, likely needing the sugar to combat the effects of the cocaine. This was in stark contrast to S who necked about ten bottles of whisky every day but no cocaine.

J had also had an argument with his wife the previous day. As his wife was Bolivian, she was allowed to live inside the prison. Foreigners would not normally be allowed to spend the night, unless a large bribe was given. Although it was a men´s prison, women and children were a common site. It was genuinely believed that the economy inside was better than that outside so they preferred to live and work inside, with their husbands.

Nervous tourists kept flooding to the door of J´s room but were put off as we looked so comfortable and J wasn´t very welcoming as the day wore on and he became more agitated.

One reason for the attraction tourists have to the prison is that people like J can promise to deliver this high quality cocaine to anywhere in La Paz later that evening. We enquired. He spoke to the guy who had been delivering cocaine to his room and had generally been his dogsbody for the time we were there. He wanted those who wanted to buy cocaine later to see the person that they would be meeting later that night.

A nervous looking boy wearing a red tshirt came to the door. He was the dogsbody´s son and would be in charge of the delivery. Not more than ten years old, he was nervous but he knew what he was doing. He had done it a million times before. ´City of God´ came to mind and the immorality of the jail and its business hit home.

We left. I had been the first person in and was the last to sign out that day. I asked for my camera. After some initial trouble, I got it back. That daily bribe to the guards given by the prisoners obviously worked well.

I looked back to see J clutching the bars. He looked more agitated. Was it the nail through the ear? Was it the girlfriend? Was it too much cocaine? Or was it because as much as he claimed to love the prison, he saw us walking out and wished that he could do the same.

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