A friend of mine raised his camera to take a picture of the entrance to San Pedro prison, and his action was met with a glare from a heavily-armed guard, followed by a slow motion shake of the head. Needless to say, my friend sheepishly lowered his camera and pretended to look elsewhere. We were outside the world famous prison in La Paz, Bolivia, eagerly leaning over shoulders to catch a glimpse of the inside, and trying to form a plan of how we were going to get in.
San Pedro stands out against other prisons because it’s ruled by its inmates. The guards are stationed outside and don’t pass through the gates, a perfect testament to the Bolivian justice system – put them in prison and just let them get on with it. The 1,500 prisoners have formed an arrangement of living which seems a lot like the outside world. They elect representatives to resolve any issues, which include deaths and fights, stalls are set up which sell groceries and other necessities to help the inmates earn money, and wives and children are allowed to live inside under certain circumstances. The better rooms are reserved for those willing to pay for them, the most expensive selling for up to $1,500. In San Pedro, like almost all other prisons in the world, the wealthy take all.
The institution was first made famous by former prisoner Thomas McFadden, an English drug smuggler who was caught in Bolivia with 4 kilos of cocaine and subsequently incarcerated. McFadden caught the eye of Australian backpacker, Rusty Young, who took a tour with McFadden and then collaborated with him to write a book about their San Pedro experiences, Marching Powder, which has since been made into a film. As word of the book spread, so did the desire to visit San Pedro. McFadden started running tours of the prison for backpackers, who bribed the guards outide around $30 in order to get in. When these tours were at their busiest, McFadden was running up to 4 a day with around 12 tourists in each round, and making a killing (by Bolivian standards!) in the process.
Aside from the fascinating world of criminals in confined space without police supervision, one of the main things which makes this one of the most popular tourist attractions in La Paz, in Bolivia even, is that inside the walls of San Pedro the inmates produce high-quality cocaine, some of the purest in the country. This is a well-known fact, but it seems the process is overlooked by the authorities entirely, another demonstration of the nature of the Bolivian government. In recent years, the steady flow of tourists that used to flock to San Pedro has thinned out, as the authorities cottoned onto the fact that most bacpackers were heading to San Pedro to cash in on the cocaine, surprise surprise, and decided to try and put their foot down.
Which brings us to our visit. I had tagged along with a group of guys keen to get into the prison to see what the whole experience was about. They had known a few people who had managed to catch the guards on the right day and at the right moment, when they were happy enough to accept bribes and let people in. Our run-in with the guard over the simple action of taking a photo had not boded well, which led us to think that perhaps peeking through the gates was our only option for that day. I have to admit that I wasn’t too disappointed by this outcome – heading into a prison that has no guards for protection didn’t seem like my kind of tourist attraction, no matter how interesting. I was content enough to be able to see into the courtyard, where the prisoners we roaming around, stretching their necks through the gates to try and see loved ones which gather outside every day.