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Bolivian Prison Monopoly: San Pedro Prison

Securing income and getting on the property ladder are two things most people can find a struggle in normal society. Imagine then, being imprisoned in a third-world country and being encountering these issues as soon as you set foot through the prison gates. These are the challenges that a new inmate is faced with upon beginning a sentence in San Pedro prison, La Paz.

I first came across the name of San Pedro prison during my stay in a hostel in Puno, Peru. It was listed in a dated publication of the Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia under the ‘Things to do’ section alongside it’s location marked on a La Paz city map. Accompanying this were a few descriptive lines of text which made the reader aware of ‘unofficial’ prison tours and overnight stays – a rather interesting detail coming from such a renowned travel guide. Owing to the date of the book’s publication I assumed it wouldn’t be of much current interest.

I didn’t hear or see of San Pedro mentioned again until spending some time with another backpacker one morning in Salar de Uyuni. He mentioned the prison when speaking about his experience in La Paz and in the same sentence, spoke of a book that had been written about it. The book in question was titled ‘Marching Powder‘ and recorded the experience of a British cocaine trafficker named Thomas McFadden, arrested in the late 90’s in a sting at El Alto Airport and subsequently imprisoned in San Pedro. Marching Powder delves into his life inside San Pedro, exploring corruption, mass cocaine production, murder, torture, social structure and the open nature of the prison. With this insight it was impossible to ignore and upon return to La Paz a day later, I set out to see the prison first hand.

Anchored amongst a network of tight residential streets and with the main facade addressing a large and lively plaza, the location couldn’t be further from what you’d expect of a prison block. Built over a century ago, on first impression one could be forgiven for being completely oblivious to it’s true purpose. The only immediately identifiable characteristic to define it as a prison are the towering adobe walls, uninterrupted by windows or openings. No barbed wire, perimeter fencing or foot patrols.

Directly opposite the bustling plaza stand the prison gates welcoming the most bizarre scene. Instead of the firm ignorance of a heavy gate the entrance is a hive of activity, with people coming and going as if the prison were playing host to an end of season sale. A tired queue is formed of predominantly women and children waiting to enter the prison, remarkably they actually live within the walls and are queuing to return home after running daily errands.

Reminded of the dated Lonely Planet description I decided to see what access is still possible these years later. Not wanting to attract too much attention and thinking a direct approach was the least suspicious option I naively walked straight up to the gate, camera in hand. I managed to get within about a five meter radius before being assertively ushered away by one of the guards on duty at the door. The wrong side of six foot and a few shades too pale to blend in with the South American congregation clamouring for entrance. I was later to find out that San Pedro had a history of being caught out in the Bolivian media with Westerners departing after tours and are keen to avoid recurring speculation.

The prison entrance.

A queue forms for access via a side entrance.

The rear of the prison supporting small ‘quiosques’

Succumbing easily to defeat I sat across the road on a bench with a view of the entrance. I’m not sure how much I actually wanted to enter a Bolivian prison anyway. I satisfied my curiosity with a spot of people watching and snuck a few photos. Photography isn’t strictly prohibited but it’s hard to take direct photos in the presence of people who are a victim of circumstance without feeling a tad voyeuristic. Throughout the time spent on the bench a number of prisoners left the gates and boarded a green transportation bus. Some pairs of prisoners were handcuffed together whilst other individuals were left to board at their own leisure, there were no more than around three guards present at the gate at any time. The procession of family members continued to and from the gate, women would arrive via public transport, cross the street and enter with their young children or shopping bags. It’s inconceivable for anyone out with the irregular Bolivian justice system to understand the arrangement here, but what I’d seen left many unanswered questions about a prison I’d only heard of a matter of days before.

I recently finished reading the book ‘Marching Powder’ and it lent some retrospect to what I’d seen outside San Pedro that day. Perhaps it was due to my first hand viewing but I struggled to put the book down until I’d finished it. Written by Australian backpacker Rusty Young, who attended a tour in the early 00’s and became a working acquaintance of Thomas McFadden in the year leading up to his release, it documents Thomas’ rollercoaster experience. From being beaten within an inch of his life to owning several cells, a restaurant and a shop inside San Pedro, ‘Marching Powder’ uncovers bribery and corruption within the Bolivian justice system whilst explaining the complex social structure of the world’s strangest prison.


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