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We wanted to celebrate our 10 year anniversary with a holiday we'd never forget - we reckon 6 months of travelling the world (from trekking on the Inca Trail and through the Amazon to riding an elephant in Thailand) should just about cover it!

Monday, 3 November 2008

The notorious San Pedro Prison, La Paz

As if the previous day´s bike ride wasn´t frightening enough, the very next day we rocked up at San pedro jail, of the book "Marching Powder" fame, hoping for a tour.
Yes, that´s right, we wanted to enter one of South America´s most dangerous prisons to chat to the inmates about their lives and find out more about this corrupt, unbelievable system.
We had been told by other travellers to ring an inmate called Stuart, A South African drug smuggler, on his mobile (yes, these inmates have their own cellphones) and that he would come and meet us at the gates. We were told to bring sweets for the kids (several hundred wives and children of the inmates actually live inside the jail) and 300 Bolivianos (around 25 quid) each for the tour.
We arranged to meet a couple of English guys (toffs from the bike ride who´d probably never set foot outside Chelsea before this trip) in San Pedro square so that we were more likely to be let in, as we figured 1200 Bolivianos would be preferable to mine and Liam´s 600.
Liam and I arrived first, and staked out the prison from a safe distance in the square. It is a large imposing building, painted incongruously in pale pink flaking paint, with several guards in toad-green uniforms standing stiffly outside the entrance.
Just when we thought the public-schoolboys had bottled it, up they trotted looking nervously from side to side. It all felt rather clandestine, as we fumbled for our entrance fee and sidled up to the entrance.
Just as we were about to walk past, a little Bolivian fellow scurried up to us and asked if we were looking for a tour, which are conducted only on Thursdays and Sundays, and only when the guards feel like it, or if they are bribed. When we mentioned the name Stuart he ushered us past the unamused guards to the gate and told us to wait there.
One of the guards sternly asked for our cameras, mobile phones etc and asked us to write down all our details, before stamping our wrists and loudly clanking open the padlocks and pushing us throught the huge steel gates into the courtyard of the prison.
Inmates looked down at us curiously from the balcony which ran around the building above as we shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot in the bright sunshine waiting for Stuart, who appeared a few minutes later being led by the messenger.
He explained that we must stay close to him, that this part of the prison was relatively safe as it was the 4 star section, but still to be cautious.
He then led us up some narrow wooden steps to his cell. I noticed he had a fresh wound on his head, but he later said this came from bumping his head on the low ceiling as he came up the staircase, rather than anything more sinister.
I was yet to read the book Marching Powder, a true account of life in the jail, and had I read it I may not have entered.
Stuart is a convicted drug smuggler, around 55 years old, with long flame-red hair and a nose to match from all the whisky he drinks in the prison. Having narrowly missed dying by hanging after years on Death Row in Pakistan, he hadn´t heeded the warning and was here for a similar offence in Bolivia. Despite having been at San Pedro for 3 years without charge, he is hopeful that he will be released soon on a technicality - he only ever speaks Africaans in front of the guards and claims not to speak English or Spanish, so as he cannot understand the charges against him and Bolivia is too poor to get an Africaans-speaking translator he may be able to avoid conviction.
He explained to us how the prison system works - this will come as no surprise to thsoe of you who have read the book (we have now, having bought a signed copy after the tour), but we were sitting there open-mouthed as the details emerged.
Prisoners in San Pedro have to buy their cell. That´s right, they have to pay to be incarcerated by the government. Each cell costs around US$400, although some go for as much as US$25000. These ones are purchased by the highest level of criminals, such as corrupt judges, although there are some as cheap as US$100, which are awful, crowded filthy spaces.
There are also 8 restaurants in the jail, which are prvately run by inmates who have purchased them - no meals are free so each prisoner must have the money to buy his meals and accomodation.
Cocaine factories abound - inmates work throughout the night to produce the world´s purest drugs, which sell inside the prison for less than 2 pounds a gram.One can also buy whisky, vodka and rum, so parties are a frequent occurance, with civilians bribing the guards to be allowed in to party, and with some even allowed to stay the weekend if the price is right.
Stuart fascinated us with tales such as this, although he kept getting disturbed by a drug-addled young guy called Jack who kept wandering into the cell to put his two-penneth in. I noticed a large kitchen knife on a shelf, and although Stuart kept assuring us it was safe he still jumped whenever the door opened.
He said that we were ok as the guards took a large chunk of the entrance fee so it was in their interests to keep curious tourists safe whilst entering the jail.
After answering our questions Stuart took us on a tour of the jail, pointing out the isoaltion rooms where the most dangerous criminals are kept, or where they are sent for punishment. He had spent a month there for drinking whisky and has the stab-wounds to prove it.We peered through a slit in the metal door and two young men with innocent faces thrust their hancuffed arms through for us to touch knuckles in a gangster-style greeting with them. As we walked away I asked Stuart what they had done.
"Oh, they are the first-degree murderers who have just got 30 years apiece," he calmly replied. Great, we´d just shaken hands with a couple of homicidal maniacs.
After a few hours we started to feel the fresh air of freedom beckoning and made a move to leave.
I think Stuart was actually grateful of our company and seemed reluctant for us to go. As we walked back across the courtyard some prisoners from the balcony above threw some ominous-looking liquid down at us, narrowly missing our heads. Did I mention that the inmates are allowed to roam free from their cells by day, as most of the fights occur at night?
Some prisoners are serving the maximum sentence of 30yrs and a loophole in the law means that even if they were to kill other people in jail they would not recieve any further punishment.This detail is important as lifers have nothing to lose by killing other prisoners (or guards, or even tourists for that matter). After Stuart divulged this little detail we decided it was time for a speedy exit and left the prison, taking a deep breath of fresh air as we stepped out into the bright sunlight.....


Kirsten said...

Blimey. I'm actually glad we didn't go there now, Great account x

emma said...

WOW! you guys are extremely brave! What an experience! im going to try and buy the book about this prison. Your blog makes fantastic bedtime reading...saving me a fortune on gossip mags! lol! Sam, you write this blog sooo well i love it!
take care and lots of love
Emma xx