Ever since the plane landed on South American soil, I’d heard nothing but talk of the notorious San Pedro prison in the heart of La Paz, Bolivia. The backpacker circuit was buzzing with tales of the jail, largely due to Rusty Young’s 2003 book, Marching Powder, the must-read it seemed for every traveller in Latin America.
The book, a gripping exposé of life inside the prison, tells the story of a young British drug smuggler who, banged up for four years, came up with the idea of giving tours, thus creating one of the world’s strangest tourist attractions.
And after finding out the film version of the book is due to be released by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, I was desperate to see the prison for myself but looking through guidebooks it seemed that the tours had stopped. A crackdown by the Bolivian government after the release of the book I assumed.
On arrival in La Paz, however, I found a different situation. The tours were still happening.
I was given Kenny’s number by a pair of Australians, who assured me I’d have no trouble getting into the prison. And they were right. After speaking briefly over the phone, and mentioning their names, a friend and I arranged to meet Kenny the next day in the square outside San Pedro’s main entrance.
When he finally turned up, I was surprised to see how smartly dressed he was- donning an expensive looking suit and shining loafers, utterly out of place with the usual Bolivian attire. After handing over 200 bolivianos (roughly £20), we joined an apprehensive looking group of tourists and a further £5 later (a bribe to the guard on the gates) we were introduced to our guide Miguel.
Like most of the residents in San Pedro, Miguel was in on drug charges but had recently taken over the running of the tours. He explained he ran them to “raise a little extra for my children”.
And this is where San Pedro differs from every other prison in the world; whole families live inside (although wives and children are free to leave the prison during daylight hours) and the jail resembles a small town. Flanked by cells, there are restaurants, hairdressers and even a hotel.
“Many people live a better life here than out on the streets,” pointed out Miguel.
“We all have a roof over our heads and many of us have small jobs.”
Easy then to see why prison poses a better option for some in Bolivia where, according to Unicef, 59% of the population live in conditions of extreme poverty.
The tour lasted for a couple of hours and took us through the different sections of the prison. As prisoners are expected to pay for their own cells, sleeping quarters range from damp, rodent-infested holes to almost penthouse apartments equipped with en-suite facilities and televisions- usually frequented by rich businessmen in for fraud.
“Normally, people stick to their section, they don’t leave” said Miguel.
“If you go into another section especially late night you could get badly hurt or worse killed. The authorities always report this as death from natural causes.”
When asked why he could come and go as he pleased, Miguel said simply “respect”. His six-foot muscular frame was certainly an advantage and walking around the jail, his presence made me feel a little more at ease.
The tour ended at one of the restaurants. I ventured to buy a hamburger, more out of politeness than hunger, and it was quickly rustled up by one of the inmates’ wives.
Chatting while she made my meal, she told me: “I’m very happy here. I work, my family has a home and the children are happy. Outside there is nothing for us when my husband is in prison.”
As I tucked into my 50 pence hamburguesa, Miguel offered us all some cocaine, the ‘finest in the world’ he claimed and produced in San Pedro itself. Although ninety per cent of prisoners are locked up for drug-related crimes, a large percentage of the world’s white stuff is still produced from inside the wall’s of San Pedro, using makeshift ‘factories’ set up in prisoner’s cells.
I slipped Miguel an extra few notes and was genuinely relieved when the gates opened and the tour group was allowed to escape. After chatting to some of the other tourists, it seems you can simply turn up at the square at the beginning of the day and hop onto a prison tour.
At the moment, San Pedro welcomes through its iron gates around fifty to sixty travellers each day and the entry money paid is said to be used in the improvement of amenities for the inmates, however, the general corrupt nature of Bolivia makes me somewhat doubt this claim.
Anyone wanting to explore San Pedro should however act quickly. Once the film version of Marching Powder is released next year, exposing secrets of the La Paz jail, prison officials and government ministers will try harder than ever to stop the tours.
Have you managed to visit San Pedro? Was the ‘tour’ the same when you were there?