San Pedro Prison
There´s been many amazing experiences I´ve had during my time in South America but I haven´t felt the motivitation to write in a very long time -- until now.
I just got back from a week and half vacation in Bolivia, mainly to renew my Peruvian visa and visit Uyuni - the world´s largest Salt Flat. However, while passing through La Paz I decided to walk off the "normal" tourist track as my curiousity for a certain prison (San Pedro Prison) had sparked an interest after hearing about a book called "Marching Powder".
"This book establishes that San Pedro is not your average prison. Inmates are expected to buy their cells from real estate agents. Others run shops and restaurants. Women and children live with imprisoned family members. It is a place where corrupt politicians and drug lords live in luxury apartments, while the poorest prisoners are subjected to squalor and deprivation. Violence is a constant threat, and sections of San Pedro that echo with the sound of children by day house some of Bolivia's busiest cocaine laboratories by night. In San Pedro, cocaine--"Bolivian marching powder"--makes life bearable. Even the prison cat is addicted."
I thought to myself some of this must be exaggerated, hyped up to sell to the general public -- either way, I had to find out.
So we arrived in La Paz on Tuesday June 29th and spent the night at Loki -- a famous South American Hostels which normally contains the craziest backpackers, willing to do anything for an experience. That night I asked around the hostel about the prison. Many had heard of the prison doing tours, others said they had done it -- being charged different amounts anywhere from 400 BS to 800 BS.
One guy at the hostel apparently had the contact to an inmate inside who could put us down as a visitor and we´d be able to enter but he said it was closed on Wednesday which meant no "visitors" were allowed.
After all the stories I heard and different ways to get in -- I just decided to go to the prison the next day and see what happens. So we went....
When we got to the prison doors they wouldn´t let us in (obviously), then they said we could come in and talk to the inmates but were only allowed a short interview which meant we couldn´t go all the way in -- that was suffient enough for my friends but not for me. I needed to get in -- all the way in.
After hanging around the prison for another 30 minutes - talking about what we were going to do - a normal looking guy from the prison came out. He said he was a policeman and he could get us in for 500 BS. For someone whose been living in South America for the last year and half - that´s expensive! So we tried to talk him down --- long story short, we brought him a few more tourists who were interested in seeing the prison for 500 BS and he let me in for a 100 BS.
Walking in was a little intimidating with weird stares and crazy people coming up to you with no teeth wanting to sell you stuff. But the further in you go, the more normal it starts to feel -- kids running around, restuaurants, villages, churches, stores, flat screen TV´s, cable, wi-fii -- EVERYTHING!
You can buy some of the best cocain in South America inside this prison - they have store inside called "Se Vende Coca" -- and they don´t sell coca leaves. They make, buy and sell all their own stuff.
My friend bought a bag of marijuana inside the prison for 5 BS. I bought a pair of earrings inside the prison for the same amount of money =/
The prison is divided into sections and each section has a name like Chaka or something.... I don´t remember the exact names. But these sections act as villages - each with their own doctor and lawyer. There are some sections of the prison which are more expensive than others and you must pay for your cell. Any trade or talent you have will work to your benefit in here and if you can´t afford to buy your cell you work in the garbage dumps and live in the really rancid sections of the prison.
Our guide couldn´t afford to pay for his cell but he was from New York and could speak english so he does tours. He decided to earn money this way and lives without a section -- which can usually offer you some type of protection.
The thing that really got to me was watching kids run around the prision playing with each other next to murders, drug addicts and rappists. I´m still trying to absorb it... its nutty, completely nutty!
IN SAN PEDRO PRISON - THE PRISONERS RUN THE PRISON. THE POLICE ARE ONLY IN CONTROL OF THE DOOR (deciding who enters/leaves).
I asked a prisoner if it was a safe prison and he said for the tourists - yes. Some prisoners make over 1000 BS a day off the tourism so they don´t want to jeapordize this in any way. Personally, I felt safe but I don´t think the average person would feel the same way.
In Bolivia everything goes... as long as you don´t caught. I am now a registered relative of a San Pedro Prisoner in Boliva.
Before leaving I went to the Commander´s office to get my camera which they had confiscated from me before entering the prison. The commander spoke to me for a little while and asked about my nationality and so on (small talk) -- then he invited me to come back to the prison after I get back from Uyuni to see the other side of the prison.
I asked "What´s on the other side?"
He said "Mafia, rich politicians and a guy from a Japan". haha
The otherside of the prison usually cost $500 DOLLARS to get in and houses the richest criminals and politicians to pass through Bolivia. They pay up anywhere from 500 - 2000 dollars for their cells and have some of the best comforts and luxuries as any chicago high rise apartment.
Prison or Freedom?