Arnold Edinburgh once said, “Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only that the cat died nobly.” Amongst most other senseless backpackers, I suppose my interest in the prison was sparked after reading ‘Marching Powder’.
Rusty Young’s ‘Marching Powder’ is about South America’s famous San Pedro prison, based in La Paz, Bolivia. Unlike your conventional prison, the guards of San Pedro do not enter the prison. Inmates do not wear any uniform and cells are allocated based on a financial hierarchical structure. Wealthier inmates live in large apartment style cells with their wives and children and the poorer inmates can live in dire poverty, sharing a small concrete cell with a large number of other prisoners. There is a cocaine lab within the prison and huge quantities of cocaine and base (also known as ‘freebase’ – the base form of cocaine prior to its crystallisation) are manufactured and distributed within and outside the gates of the jail. Amongst many others, I share quite a fascination with this prison. Inmates started giving guided tours of the prison to travellers a few years ago so I knew when I got to South America, this was something I had to do.
In March 2009, one foolish traveller posted pictures of her tour of San Pedro on the internet, along with videos on YouTube of the interior of the prison and the cocaine manufactured inside. Some news stations in Bolivia managed to get hold of these images and, of course, the media had a field day. This caused many problems for the prison and as a result, San Pedro outlawed tours of the prison.
I had heard from everyone I spoke to that they were turning anyone who tried to enter San Pedro away at the gates. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but after heavy internet searching I found the telephone number for the public phone within the prison. From reading various other blogs, I understood that the only way for me to get inside the prison would be if I were a friend or family member of one of the inmates, so I tried to call the number to see if I could convince whoever answered to pretend this in exchange for some money. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts trying to hurdle the language barrier, I found a very nice travel agent to make the call for me. One of the inmates explained that the main visiting days are Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays but was unable to help me personally.
So, I contacted 25 couch-surfers from La Paz over the internet to see if anyone had any information that may help me get into the prison, but received all negative responses other than one woman who happened to know one of the inmates – success!
I went to meet with the woman the next day and we made a call to her nephew, Manuel Quiroga, who was in the high security section of the prison – ‘Chonchocorito.’ On the phone, he explained that the best way for me to get in would be to claim that I was an old friend of another inmate – Elot Toaso. Elot is a Hungarian who happened to have once spent some time in the Big Smoke so my story was as follows; Elot and I are old chums from our time working behind a bar together in Camden! Manuel explained that I will need a Spanish speaker to explain my relationship with Elot to the guards at the entrance – preferably a girlfriend or wife. Of course, the first person I mentioned this to jumped on the opportunity. South-African Zelda claimed her Spanish was tip-top and that she would be the perfect candidate to pose as my girlfriend for the afternoon.
In the morning, Zelda and I got up at 8 and went shopping to buy some gifts for Manuel and Elot: 4 packs of cigarettes, a bag of bread, and a bag of bananas, kiwis, oranges and apples. We had to enter from the side entrance of the prison which is where the high security section is located. We spent a while in the waiting room after having our passports taken from us, until the head colonel called us into his office for an interrogation. Zelda kept repeating “My boyfriend is a friend of Elot´s from London. They worked together. He knows we are coming.” The colonel was very suspicious and did not allow us to enter the prison but called Elot into his office to see if we were telling the truth.
Elot was amazing; almost tripping over his own feet, he stumbled into the office. With a great big smile, right in front of the Spanish-speaking colonel he said to us in English, “WE MUST PRETEND WE KNOW EACH OTHER” and came straight over to me and gave me a great big hug. Elot had massive blue wonky eyes, his hair was scruffy and he was wearing a Hungarian football shirt and a pair of homemade jean shorts. He resembled a harmless eastern European yokel rather than a hardened San Pedro criminal.
We sat with Elot in the colonel’s office for over an hour as he told us all about the prison, the guards, the other inmates and what he was being held for. Elot seemed like a kind and friendly man, with very little aggression in his character. He discussed the violence in the prison, describing how one of the inmates was recently beaten with a bicycle chain. He also spoke about one of the inmates with mental disabilities who, despite being heterosexual, often acts in a feminine and camp manner. For this, he is sometimes raped by the other inmates. His descriptions and reports were all fairly ambiguous as much prison gossip is hearsay, and of course, as he says, they are not his business. He also claimed he was innocent – which the other inmates we later met claimed was bollocks!
At the time, I vaguely understood that Elot was being held in prison for a sentence of between 15 and 30 years. I later discovered that Elot was part of a terrorist group who had planned to assassinate the Bolivian president Eva Morales, and other government officials. He claimed he was very well respected within the prison and we later heard someone describe him as “one of the most dangerous men in Bolivia.” His innocuous and kindly demeanour had certainly not given us such an impression.
The high security section was home to about 25 prisoners who were all kept there for political crimes. Many of these prisoners had bounties on their heads and for this reason could not be held in any of the other sections of the prison.
After conversing for a while, I asked Elot if he could ask the colonel if we could visit the prison and see where he stays – only for 10 minutes. Having now gained more trust with the colonel, he accepted. He took my camera from me, and Elot led us down the stairs to the gated entrance of his home within the prison.
We walked into a room which lead onto a small courtyard where about 15 inmates were wandering around. One was sitting by a table in the middle carving an intricate wooden ship. I saw another man in his early 60s lying on his bed with the door wide open, reading. By his bed was a large pile of shoes just lying there. All of the inmates smiled and waved at us, and Manuel, the nephew of the couch-surfer who sorted it all out for me approached us with a big smile and slapped hands.
We went into Elot´s room where he made us some coca tea and we sat there with Manuel drinking and chatting. Elot had doodles and drawings stuck on the walls and political books stacked by his bed; he showed us the top one, which was written about him!
Later, Manuel took us into his room. Similar to Elot’s room, Manuel’s room was around 5 foot squared. He had some of his daughter’s drawings mounted on the wall. After some time talking about his experiences in the prison, the president of their section entered the room. Sharing the same hospitality of most Bolivians, he pointed at his wet hair and apologised for not having introduced himself earlier on as he was having a shower. He shook my hand and kissed Zelda on entrance and exit and was extremely polite and friendly. Another man also entered the room to offer us some base or cocaine.
A short while later, the colonel called for us to leave. We grabbed our passports and my camera and left, singing and dancing in the street.
Sharing a fascination with this prison with so many other travellers, I felt a personal obligation to quench the thirst of my curiosity by seeing it with my own eyes; and on reading over my account of that afternoon, I recognised the uncanny resemblance to the descriptions in the book.
It’s easy for a traveler to hop from place to place, witnessing cultural rarities and ticking boxes; climb the Inca trail, rave at a full moon party, camp by Lake Malawi, sample Bolivian cocaine, go to a favela funk party, do a bungee jump in New Zealand. The problem is, visiting these places to ‘witness poverty’ or to share an ironic grin at ‘the madness’ actually invests in the initial problem.
La Paz suffers from very serious social inequalities, and the level of corruption within their society is quite apparent. From inside, it is quite clear that the prison is largely financed by bribes and the manufacturing of base and cocaine. Around 60% of all the inmates are still waiting to be tried, the majority of which will spend a minimum of 3 years there before they are even sentenced. Additionally, the serious problem of children growing up inside a prison just can’t be ignored.
Did I solve these problems, or even help reduce them? Were the food and supplies I bought for the inmates going to a worthy cause? And will the money that I put into the prison go towards helping getting the children out?
I think one question that must be addressed is; as travelers, are our interests and curiosities really in the right place?
Edan Feldman – Vazan