San Pedro Penitentiary
Prison and cocaine in Bolivia: Leila Molana-Allen follows in the footsteps of Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden. This article is from the Wanderer archive (2008); the prison has since closed its doors to travellers.
Backpacking in Bolivia this summer, I did something I had never imagined I would do – voluntarily had myself incarcerated, just for the fun of it. While stranded in the Peruvian mountains for three days due to bus strikes, we had heard stories about a prison where you could bribe your way in, and spend the day in a cocaine-fuelled haze. It was pretty tricky to get in, but we were determined not to leave La Paz without giving it a go.
The prison is the notorious San Pedro penitentiary. Built on prime real estate in central La Paz, it faces on to San Pedro square, one of the capital‘s most illustrious postcodes. From the out-side it looks like a gated community for the Bolivian elite. Only the guards stationed outside hint at what lies beyond the high white walls.
Home to around 1,500 inmates, the prison feels like a small town complete with alleyways and courtyards. The accommodation is divided into eight sections of varying luxury – Posta, where we were, is the five and a half star section, built twenty years ago by drug lords who wanted better conditions, and could afford to donate a whole new enclosure to house just 70 high-ranking inmates.
Wives and children live alongside their menfolk in San Pedro, free to come and go as they please. The children leave for school each day as usual, while the women go and meet friends in town. Many have commented that San Pedro is a somewhat cushy prison experience, and indeed, that the women and children who live there are far better off than those living in poverty on the outside.
In San Pedro, money is everything. Convicts must pay a fee when they are incarcerated, and that‘s just the start of it. Cells are not assigned – having paid the admission fee for whichever section they can afford, inmates then go about finding an apartment to rent or buy.
Those who cannot afford a place to live are forced to sleep on the street, and spend their every penny on the highly addictive cocaine base smoked by most inmates. Or else they depend on the charity of the section‘s inhabitants and its elected delegate, who often have an apartment next to the chapel for the homeless as part of their own rudimentary welfare system. To earn the money to sustain themselves, inmates also have to work, and jobs range from owning a shop or a restaurant to running the lucrative tour business. The Bolivian government has officially denied that San Pedro runs on such a system, but since the release of Rusty Young‘s 2003 book chronicling the incarceration of British inmate Thomas McFadden, they have been hard pressed to contain the situation.
Journalist Rusty Young spent three months living in San Pedro with Thomas McFadden, a Briton convicted of trying to smuggle cocaine out of La Paz airport, on the pretence of being his cousin, and later his lawyer. Together they wrote a book documenting the horrors and intrigues of the world‘s strangest prison.
The hostel we stayed at in central La Paz was plastered with signs: ―Please do not ask us about San Pedro prison tours. These are illegal. We cannot help you.‖ Lying around everywhere, however, were well-thumbed photocopies of Young‘s book which were available from the main desk, and information on where to go, who to ask for, and what to expect was always available from those who had visited that day, coming down in the bar.
We went to the side entrance, and, as instructed by yesterday‘s visitors, said we were friends of a certain Professor Plum, and had tried to call him but couldn‘t get through. The guards barely re-acted, but told us someone would be along to fetch us soon – no tickets or forms. Just a faded stamp on the wrist, and we were in. All they asked us was whether we had any mobile phones or cameras – technology is banned for visitors since Young used secret recording and photographic devices to document McFadden‘s story.
While it was difficult to trust our hosts completely, we were told we had nothing to fear from any of the Bolivian prisoners who stared as we entered. They wouldn‘t touch us; we were worth so much in revenue that the guards would have no qualms executing any inmate who tried to harm a tourist on the spot.
We are taken to the biggest (and priciest) apartment in Posta, and after climbing three stories worth of ladders, we find ourselves in a kitchen looking out over the rooftops of La Paz. This room belongs to Colonel Mustard, the resident big boss of the prison‘s narcotics pack. I ask him whether he feels lucky to have such a beautiful view. ― ‘Are you joking? It makes it ten times worse. Freedom is so near, and yet still that step too far.’
Mustard is the real deal – he has smuggled drugs all over the world, been on death row in the Middle-East, and negotiated his way out of it. And he‘s about to do it again. In a stroke of even-handedness one might not expect from a developing county‘s legal system, if a case has not come to trial by the time the accused has served three years and three months, they are free to go. Locked up on a drugs charge he knows should see him convicted for 20 years, Mustard has played the system to perfection. He claims he only speaks one language – his native dialect – despite being fluent in several, and as the Bolivian government refuse to incur the considerable costs of finding and flying over a translator, the man who has imported illegal substances from most parts of the world cannot be tried; the Colonel will be out before Christmas.
Professor Plum, the Colonel‘s second-in-command, takes over. He‘s only in for possession, but clearly loves to bask in his boss‘ reflected glory. ― ‘Of course we love the attention. We‘re all arrogant pricks here; it‘s what we live for. What else have we got here? You guys keep us going.’‖ Just as our attention starts to wane, another prisoner, Reverend Green, takes us on a tour of the section, proudly displaying his quarters, fully equipped with a camping stove, cable TV, and a tower of unmentionable DVDs. His is one of only four rooms in the section that has its own shower head – a huge luxury in a place where gangs stalk the streets, and every trip to the isolated public bathrooms could be your last.
In the courtyard I bump into Posta‘s elected delegate – like most of them, he is an ex-politician, imprisoned for corruption, who‘s found a way to continue his livelihood on the inside. Next we go to see the isolation cells. Holes have been dug out at the top, and inquisitive heads poke through, keen to meet us. Green tells us most people are there for missing one too many early morning roll-calls, and can climb out to get food and go to the bathroom as long as the guards don‘t see them. The real solitary section, on the other side of the prison, is a different story. As the guards don‘t provide anything, if you don‘t have any friends to bring you food when you‘re in there, you starve.
Some of the purest cocaine in the world is made in laboratories deep in the heart of the gaol. When they ask us whether anyone fancies ‗’a cup of tea’ – their code for cocaine — they make it clear it‘s entirely optional, and we‘re welcome to stay in the main room and chat for longer instead. About half the assembled group decide to go, and we‘re escorted to another western inmate‘s apartment: Captain Scarlett.
Two American girls who are already in there start shouting at our host, saying they‘ve paid and they want longer in there on their own – they are immediately asked to leave. ―’too many questions, they were making us uncomfortable. That‘s not how we do things here.’
Then Captain Scarlett begins his crack-induced soliloquy. Some of it seems obvious, while other elements stretch the bounds of credulity. But everyone sits silently and listens, knowing dues must be paid – no one‘s getting their hands on anything until we‘ve seen the show, and digested his life story.
Lounging on his bed, and on the children‘s toys scattered on the floor, we put on some music and pass around the straws, cards and DVD cases that are stacked in the corner. His charming girlfriend offers us all refreshments, and goes to make us sandwiches and soft drinks, even making special allowances for the two vegetarian girls. Then the cocaine is handed round – two good lines cost just over £1. ‘You pay for the stuff’‖he tells us, ‘but everything else is out treat. You‘re our guests here, and we‘re very happy to have you.’‖ And I believe him. The two met at one of the parties thrown to help inmates meet women: there is a strong belief in some circles that a San Pedro inmate, and particularly a westerner, is a good catch. She deals for him on the outside, walking sizeable quantities of cocaine out of the prison (and the money back in) on a daily basis, for the backpackers who‘ve been to visit and can‘t resist getting their hands on just a little bit more, despite the obvious risks.
I spend the next few hours talking animatedly with his partner about the best places to go out in Brazil, and playing with his daughter, who seems healthy, happy, and utterly doted upon.
Children and wives are actually surprisingly safe in San Pedro – there is a sense that they are the guardian angels of the place, and are sacred, not to be touched. Indeed, the inmates have their own ways of making sure it stays that way. As they all have televisions, they often know exactly who‘s coming to the prison before they turn up, and what they‘ve been convicted of. Rapists and paedophiles are not tolerated. In one of the more horrifying scenes from Young‘s book, McFadden relates how three young men convicted of raping and murdering a young girl are beaten and drowned in‗’La Piscina‘, the public swimming pool which plays a dark role in the prison‘s social justice system.
It‘s widely known that San Pedro is the place to go for ’tea‘, as they call it, and is infinitely preferable to the secret Gringos-only bar ’36‘, where beer is served with a line, and the coke is cut with so much speed you can‘t sleep for two days. You could always pick out the ones who had made that mistake the next morning, twitching slightly as they tried to force down their breakfast.
But while some visitors obviously go just for the coke, for most the experience is about a lot more than sitting in room snorting white powder. It‘s difficult to describe what it‘s like to spend the day with people who‘ve done things you‘ve grown up being taught to condemn. Were these people evil, incredible or just insane? For days beforehand I felt slightly sick when I thought about getting stuck in there, and considered bailing out. But I was determined not to back out – I knew it would be worth it, and we‘d heard that the authorities were beginning to get uncomfortable and the tours would soon be shut down; this was probably our only chance. We were in so fast that I barely had time to process what was happening before I realised we were locked inside a third world prison.
The group of western narcotics smugglers who run the tours call themselves the ‗’Seven Deadly Sins‘, each taking one as their moniker. The entrance fee‘ is 250 Bolivianos, just under £20, and a far sight higher than McFadden‘s original price of just 20 Bolivianos; the price hike indicates the increasing danger for the inmates and guards as well as visitors since the government banned the tours several years ago after they were branded nothing but a cocaine shopping spree.‖
And what do the Sins think about McFadden and Young‘s best-selling book? They are very diplomatic, but it seems clear they don‘t approve, presumably because its release has made it far more difficult for them to continue running their lucrative tour business. ‘He was here in his time, and we are here in ours. That wasn‘t our experience of this place, but things change’.‖
This article is from the Wanderer archive (2008); the prison has since indeed changed and closed its doors to travellers.
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