The Fantasy World of a Bolivian Prison

Montana Lawyer October 2010
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Perhaps the most difficult part in writing about San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, is deciding where to begin. Is it with the story of Thomas McFadden, the British cocaine trafficker whose tale of incarceration there led to the prison’s worldwide acclaim? Or is it with the mention that inmates are not confined to their cells, but free to roam the prison?

Or that although San Pedro is strictly a men’s prison, many of their wives and children live in the prison with them and are free to come and go as they please?

Or that the guards rarely leave their post at the prison gates to actually patrol the prison’s wards? Or that prisoners are expected to pay an entrance fee, buy, or rent their cell via the complex real estate system that governs such, find a source of income, and provide for their own food, buying it from one of the many markets or eateries inside? Or that tourists like myself have been regularly allowed admittance for prison tours?

Or maybe that San Pedro prison refines and exports some of the word’s finest cocaine? (Well, we know for sure it used to, but the other tourists in my group didn’t buy our tour guide’s assurances that this practice was something in the past.) Nevertheless, the story must be told. And nothing can mask that this prison is the product of a ruthless system, beyond poor, beyond corrupt, where uniforms and titles of authority are no indication of a person’s likeliness to follow a just moral or legal code.

BUT I WANT US TO BE more sophisticated than simply ignoring any wisdom that may come from this reprehensible system. I want to take a step back in order to better distinguish the fine contours between that which offends our senses and that which gives us new perspective. To begin a discussion of San Pedro, just forget everything you know and expect of penal systems. Your preconceptions will only confuse you. Such was my experience as I neared La Paz on my travels through South America in January 2009 — the three-week trek marking the midway point of my year studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
From as far away as Peru, tales of San Pedro began to reach my ears from fellow backpackers in buses and hostels — hotspots for travelers to spread stories, advice, and anecdotes to other adventurers along Latin America’s gringo trail. “When you get to La Paz, you have to see the prison,” several adventurers told me as I got closer to the highest capital city in the world. The buzz was thickening, my curiosity swelling. What could be so appealing about visiting a prison? I imagined it would be like an Alcatraz experience — a tour through an empty ruin of a prison.
But I was wrong. I would be inside an active prison. Not only that, but my tour guide and bodyguards would also be prisoners. Oh, right — and we wouldn’t be separated from the prisoners, but walking in and among them.

APPREHENSIVE, I sought advice for my future visit. “Bring cigarettes for the guards and candy for the kids,” a nice Irish bloke told me in a Peruvian hostel. “What?” I said, puzzled. “There are kids in there?” “Oh, yeah,” he explained. “It’s really the only way they can keep their families together.” About six days passed, and I found myself facing the prison from the open, green plaza that it sits in front of. The prison’s tall, stone walls rose like a fortress, taking up its own side of the plaza and stretching back into the blocks behind it. A white South African lady in dreadlocks in her thirties approached me and offered the tour.

The price was 240 Bolivianos (or “Bs,” as they call them), at the time about $35 USD. I didn’t complain about the price, but for Bolivia, this is an insane amount of money. A taxi fare anywhere in the city shouldn’t cost more than 8 Bs, and my luxurious-as-far-as-hostels-go accommodations were only $7 USD per night. Of those 240 Bs, only 70 actually made it into the prison — the rest went to the guards and outside organizers. Despite the fact that that Lonely Planet — authors of the quintessential travel guides to South America — has dubbed San Pedro “the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction,” officially, there are no tours of San Pedro prison. In fact, I was held outside in the plaza for several minutes before I was allowed to enter because a bigwig in the police force was hanging around the front gate. It wasn’t that everyone else didn’t want him to see me go in; it was that he didn’t want to see me go in. He didn’t care because he was probably getting a cut of the money, but his under- lings had enough respect for him to give him plausible deniability. Corruption is not crime in Bolivia – it’s a way of life.

WHEN SHE GOT the all-clear, I was led up to the gates where a group of guards in green uniforms let me slide past and into an office. There she had me sign a visitor’s book, intended for legitimate visitors, leaving the field for “who I was visiting” blank. The guards put me in the charge of a prisoner who led me through the prison so that I could catch up with a tour that was already in progress. And those were the last guards I saw for the duration of the tour – it’s self-rule for the prison’s inmates. I passed into fantasy world – not a prison but a walled city with a fountain and open courtyards with the bustle of daily activity. Imagine a two-story motel with a sky-blue face and a rusty tin roof circling a courtyard in a triangle shape. Inside there were children laughing, playing on foosball tables, or kicking a soccer ball around with the smells of cooking foods wafting, and people milling or sitting about casually. I had only seconds to absorb my environment as the prison- er led me up a rickety spiral staircase to the upper balcony, and then turned us down a hallway where we met the rest of the tour group. There were about eight other people, a few of whom I recognized from my hostel.

MOST OF THE OTHER tourists had calmed my apprehensions about being among the prisoners. They explained to me very simply: the tourists are 100 percent safe in San Pedro, because without them, the money stops. And money is perhaps the most coveted commodity in San Pedro. For those with no money to speak of, life at San Pedro may mean fighting the cold and base addicts (or addictions) in the grimy, cheerless parts of the prison. Men cram four or five to a room, and life is always dangerous and uncomfortable. Prisoners need money for food, for rent, and for all creature comforts.

With money comes life in San Pedro. On the other side of the economic spectrum, those wealthy, prominent criminals enjoy a life of luxury. They have satellite TV, private bathrooms, and a penthouse-suite quality of life. One second-story prisoner decided his cell was too small, so he added on — upwards, and created a whole additional floor to his apartment. It is not the law of the warden that rules San Pedro, but the law of Economics. After paying the entrance fee to the guards, the inmates have to battle the complex real estate system to buy or rent a cell from another pris- oner. The prices of cells fol- low the rules of supply and demand, so timing and predicting the markets is a valuable skill.

At the time of my visit, a basic prison cell in one of the nicer wards cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 USD. A nicer one can go for $1,500. And that didn’t include the fees paid to those prisoners who fancied themselves as real estate agents, messengers, witnesses, and legal counsel. To call those habitations “cells” seemed unbefitting. These fully furnished residences bore the full personalities of their occupants: decorations on the walls, bedspreads, beaded door curtains, artwork, books and kitchenettes. I saw evidence of the handicrafts the prisoners worked on to sell to the tourists and other prisoners.

WE WOUND OUR way through the tight prison passages – one of which was said to be haunted due to the frequent mysterious deaths – and we emerged into one of the prison’s courtyards, where some prisoners were playing soccer. Our guide told us prisoners show their pride for their ward through the soccer tournaments. The different sections of the prison constitute little communities in the larger walled city of San Pedro, and when they face off against each other on the soccer pitch, many spectators will show up to cheer their ward on. In lieu of any official guards, some prisoners act as an enforcing presence, sitting calmly with police clubs, supposedly keeping some degree of order, but mostly they just looked bored. Every time we’d pass one, our tour guide would indicate that someone should give him a cigarette.

Around every corner was another surprise. We ascended to the roof, where we could see the sprawling, colorful mountain city across the tin roof of the prison. As we took in the view, a man appeared from a doorway to water his marijuana plant at the nearby tap. He smiled as our tour group took a surprised interest in his plant. Anything goes in San Pedro.

IN ONE COURTYARD, we passed the prison’s swimming pool. The other tourists more familiar with the prison’s histo- ry ogled with interest the random circular hole in the prison’s floor, perhaps 10 to 12 feet in diameter and of sufficient depth. I soon found that this was where two new inmates, rapists, had been brutally murdered by other prisoners upon entry. They do not tolerate sex offenders in the place where their wives and children reside.

And children were everywhere. I made some friends by handing out sweets, and engendered contempt when I ran out. The children seemed blissfully unaware that they were living in a prison. They were doing things that kids normally do, playing with toys, not wanting to share, foosball, tag, some were watching TV. And the prison’s women looked like they were just living their daily lives – working one of the markets, doing laundry at the public sinks or just being social. These family members of prisoners are able to enter and exit freely. Many kids attend schools on the outside, and wives can bring messages or smuggled goods in or out of the prison’s walls.

IN FACT, LIFE in the prison didn’t seem that much different than life on the outside. The laws of the marketplace governed their occupations. But on top of the shopkeepers, doctors, and photographers, accountants and painters, there are those who keep their criminal activity alive during their period of supposed penitence – manufacturing cocaine in their cells in the dead of night, their wives smuggling it out during the day. More on cocaine in a bit. And, needless to mention, there are tour guides.

The reason I could go on this tour, the reason tours exist at all, is because of the prison’s first tour guide, Thomas McFadden. The British cocaine trafficker landed himself in San Pedro after being thwart- ed by threats of American DEA activity, betrayed by a friend of a friend, ignored by the judicial system, and then agonized by cold, hunger, and infection in a holding cell awaiting the trial that would never come. Upon the verge of death, he chose to forego his trial and go straight to San Pedro prison – anything to escape the torture by neglect he was suffering. Even though the bulk of McFadden’s cargo had been confiscated, he had a contingency plan: a handful of cocaine-filled capsules he had ingested beforehand. He thought for sure that these drugs must be worth something in prison – enough to buy him food, comfort, or maybe freedom. Not trusting anyone, he would secretly re-swallow the capsules every time he would pass them. When he finally made a friend at San Pedro – somebody he could trust with the knowledge of his only valuables – he was laughed at. Little did McFadden know he had walked into a gold depository trying to sell his tooth fillings.

The following comes from, “Marching Powder,” a 2003 book by Australian writer Rusty Young, who lived with Thomas McFadden for several months inside San Pedro in order to tell McFadden’s story.

“They say that prisons don’t actually help to reform prisoners; that, in fact, they make them worse because all the time they are mixing with other convicted felons, which allows them to make new contacts and share knowledge and skill that help them to commit bigger and better crimes once they get out. Well, if prisons are now more than schools for further criminality, then San Pedro prison was the International University of Cocaine, where you could study under some of South America’s leading professors: laboratory chemists, expert accountants, and worldly businessmen.

“And at this particular university, students didn’t even have to wait until they graduated and got back out into the wide world in order to start practicing their careers. We had all the necessary conditions to work right there on the inside, including investment capital, factories, a captive labour force, transport couriers, telephones and faxes, as well as a friendly police who got their cut for looking the other way.”

AS OUR VISIT CAME to a close, our tour guide filed us into what looked like a classroom. A chalkboard covered the front wall and about 15 student desks arced in a wide semi-circle facing it. We sat. Our tour guide passed around a hat, soliciting tips for himself, our bodyguards and a small tax for taking photos. Then, he asked us who would like to buy some cocaine.

I had been told that tourists could buy cocaine inside, but in my head it was random prisoners whispering from their cells, “Pssst! Hey! Cocaína!” But no, this was our tour guide, in all of his professionalism, offering us 96 percent pure cocaine for 100 Bolivianos per gram. I scanned the group to see the reactions. A few looked like they’d been expecting it. One shaven-headed Australian that I recognized from my hostel raised his hand, indicating he’d like to purchase some. Others, the more tame-looking vacationers had been caught as off-guard as I had been. Surprise and discomfort painted their faces as the Australian prepared a line for himself, tested the product, and seemed satisfied enough that he bought another unit. And that concluded our tour.

On exiting, my shock at the society I had just witnessed left my mind reeling. But despite the corruption, the criminal activity, the prison violence, and the drug use, I was caught up in a sense of overall approval for at least one aspect of the San Pedro paradigm: take the criminals out of society, but don’t take the society out of the criminals. Let the laws of economics reign sovereign in the prison. Let their wives and children cohabitate — they can do a better job of keeping criminals sociable than strict prison society can. Why spend tax money to feed and house prisoners when they can manage it themselves?

MY HEAD WAS in the clouds, riding this wide-eyed, naïve approval of their system. Eager to learn more, I ordered “Marching Powder” immediately. I powered through the stranger-than-fiction page-turner, only to be brought back to earth with a thud. The book solidified the endless corruption, perpetual violence, and organized crime that saturate the prison culture. I realized that the system they had created was surely not brought on by any enlightened source of wisdom, but the product of corruption. In the United States we are afforded the luxurious mentality that our justice system can accurately separate the Good Guys from the Bad Guys. When corruption stains our social fabric, it’s easy to spot-clean and the faith is restored in the system. But the corruption that plagues Bolivia is endemic. The judges and the prosecutors and the guards do not see their positions as opportunities to uphold justice, but as muscle to leverage their next bribe. And in the country where there is no system trusted to define the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, no mentality separating them exists. They do not kid themselves that they are doing justice when they lock offenders up. It is simply one group of criminals locking up another — surely a sad proposition, but it might reveal a certain bared truth that our finely tuned justice machine masks: that any attempt to quarantine Evil will to some degree remain flawed.

SAN PEDRO, like Bolivia, remains as unpredictable as it is lawless. Two parties of friends have attempted entry to San Pedro since I related my story to them: once in June 2009 and again in June of this year in an attempt to obtain photos for this article. Both were turned away at its gates. Despite the fame garnered since the 2003 release of “Marching Powder,” San Pedro still shows no signs of changing its ways. The prison authorities still stand by their official statements of the prison’s normalcy despite the book and wealth of travel blogs serving as witnesses. Oddly enough, “the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction” denies both allegations: being bizarre and being a tourist attraction. But knowing Bolivia, it seems almost fitting.

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