It’s not listed in most guide books, yet travelers up and down the “gringo trail” in South America talk about it nonstop.
“Have you been to the prison?” they inquire of anyone that’s passed through Bolivia.
The “prison” they are referring to is the infamous San Pedro Prison, located off a quiet, pretty square in central La Paz. Behind the 30-foot walls of this former monastery, some 1,500 prisoners live in conditions unlike any prison you’ve ever heard of.
To start, there are no guards. That’s right – no guards.
The prisoners have self-organized an entire city within San Pedro, divided it into eight sections, with their own elected leaders, and are free to move around at their own will throughout the prison. The wives and children of the prisoners can even live inside with them; facing an even tougher life on the outside, hundreds choose to do just that.
Instead of living in cells, the prisoners purchase their own room, with accommodations ranging from tiny cramped closets shared with other inmates, to “four-star” luxurious suites, complete with kitchens, bathrooms, flat screen TVs, cable, and all the other modern conveniences of home.
Most of the prison population is what the authorities deem “low risk”, with about 80% in for drug offences and other petty crimes. The four-star sections even house some politicians who have been put away for corruption and other offences against the state. At one point, Bolivia’s current Vice President, Alvaro Linera, was in San Pedro for insurrection and terrorism, after being caught destroying electrical towers around La Paz with a guerilla organization.
We had heard other travelers’ stories of touring San Pedro, and debated whether we should visit ourselves. On the one hand, we knew visiting the prison was not entirely legal, that we would have to essentially “bribe” the guards on the outside, and support criminals by paying our guides on the inside – who might use the money for nefarious activities. While we had heard that the tours seemed safe and professional, this was a prison (one without guards!), so we were also concerned about our safety. On the other hand, everyone that had been to the prison said it was unmissable, and one of the most fascinating experiences of their entire trip.
Despite the risks, we decided to visit one Sunday with Jessica and Michele. We chose Sunday, as this is one of the official “visitor days” when inmates’ families can enter for free. We figured conditions would be safer for us there with lots of women and children running around.
While we had heard a lot about the prison itself, we didn’t really know how to get in. Some people had said you needed the name of a prisoner to visit, pretending to be a distant family member or a close friend. Others had said you could just wait in San Pedro Plaza, in front of the prison, and wait to be approached by a fixer to bring you through the gates.
We arrived at the Plaza, only to find it under construction and surrounded by temporary metal walls on all sides. A little confused, we walked around the front of the prison, looking around, hoping to be spotted. Just when we were about to give up, a young woman, dressed up in high heels approached us, saying “Hello Friends!”
The woman told us she could get us in, but that we had to avoid drawing too much attention. In order to complete a low profile, we walked around the square with her, and then quickly slipped in through the outside gates, past the line of Bolivian visitors waiting to enter.
At this point, we were still in the outer wall of the prison, which the guards controlled. We were brought into a small room, where we entered our names and passport numbers into a registry book. The guards marked our arms with a number corresponding to that in the book; this would be the identification we needed to get back to the outside world. Next, we paid the 400 Boliviano (US $57) “fee” to the guards, were given a quick pat down, told not to take photos, and instructed to leave before 6pm.
A guard brought us to the inner gate and told us to wait. At this point, I think it’s safe to say we were all a bit nervous, looking through the gates at the commotion inside, still not fully sure what we were getting ourselves into.
Before we could change our minds, a lock was turned, the gate opened, and we were dumped into the prison’s main courtyard. A middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap introduced himself as our tour guide, and led us to a nearby room that looked like an office. Here, we were asked to register our details again and introduced to a younger man that was to be our bodyguard.
The guide started by bringing us to one of the section’s courtyards, where men were standing around playing cards and talking, clothes were hanging out to dry, children were running around playing games, and women were working behind food stalls, chopping, frying, and selling all sorts of items. It was hectic, but not that much different than the sort of scene you would see anywhere else in La Paz.
The prison operates its own economy, with inmates having to pay for everything, including housing, food, and medical care. Some are supported by their families on the outside, but most have to go to work inside the prison, taking on jobs like bakers, shop-keepers, artisans, hair-cutters, telephone-booth operators, among many others.
Our guide brought us through a few different sections, showing us some of the varying living conditions. In the sections where prisoners did not have a lot of money to buy a nice “cell,” we peeked into tiny rooms with no windows, low ceilings, and just enough room for a mattress. Many of these dark and dingy areas smelled of backed up sewage. We were told they are unsafe at night.
Some of the most interesting sights were the prison’s common areas. There were gymnasiums, saunas, restaurants, general stores, billiard halls, and more – all independent businesses run by fellow prisoners.
We spent about two hours walking through some of the different sections, with our guide eagerly answering all our questions, discussing the prison’s history, escape attempts over the years, and the bizarre prison economy.
San Pedro’s most famous inmate is undoubtedly Thomas McFadden, an English cocaine trafficker whose time in the prison was chronicled in the book Marching Powder, written by Australian backpacker Rusty Young and released in 2003. Thomas was the first inmate to run tours of the prison, and his assorted stories of corruption, violence, misery, and joy have made the book a huge success. While he has since been freed from San Pedro, a movie adaptation of the novel is slated to be released next year, starring Don Cheadle and produced by Brad Pitt’s production company.
In Marching Powder, a lot of dirty secrets about the prison were made public. One of these is the production and consumption of cocaine in San Pedro Prison. Ironically, while most of the population is there for drug offences, some of Bolivia’s purest cocaine is produced, sold, and consumed right inside the prison. Thomas was famous for throwing all-night cocaine-fueled parties for the tourists.
We weren’t entirely sure if we’d see this darker side of San Pedro, but at the end of the tour, our guide brought us to a small room, sat us down, and offered us some cocaine. Politely, we all declined, and started anxiously eyeing the exit. The guide, however, was not pushy – he collected his tip from us, brought us back out to the main courtyard, and waited with us in line until we had left the gates.
The guards checked the markings on our arms, nodded, and let us pass back into the free world. Walking away, we were still processing our last two hours in San Pedro. Had that really just happened? The experience was completely surreal.
About a week after we toured the prison, we heard that a group of backpackers tried to enter, only to be apprehended and ordered to leave the country. Authorities occasionally crack down on the corruption in San Pedro, and it’s important to keep in mind these tours are not legal. Given this, we do not currently recommend the tour to other travelers.
Note: We were not allowed to take photos inside the prison. The photos featured in this blog are licensed from Wikicommons and Flickr.