The start of one of the strangest days of my life began when I called a guy called Stuart on his cell phone and arranged to meet with him at San Pedro jail in La Paz. I agreed to be there at 12.30 and took some of the guys I met on the Inka trail along with me.
I had heard about San Pedro when I was back in Chile as well as many other places since I’ve been in South America. The place used to be well known for visits until a book entitled “Marching Powder” was published exposing these visits and blatant drug taking within. (I bought a signed copy).
My arm got stamped by the uniformed guard, and we were in!
Anyway, I entered the world’s most notorious jail, had my arm stamped by a very stern uniformed guard and then Jacques and Daniel came down to shake my hand through the bars (a pair of convicted South African drug traffickers). The gates were then unlocked and I entered the courtyard where a group of Bolivians were hanging out and kids were running around. The first thing that struck me was the huge Coca-Cola advertisement adorning the walls. The gates were then locked behind me….. Jacques led me up a staircase and into an attic room where we were greeted by George, a very well dressed convicted Colombian that rents the attic to Stuart so he can conduct his Q and A sessions with tourists like myself.
I never quite imagined how I was going to feel or what to expect but when I met Stuart, a 50 something-year-old South African, however, I was put at ease. He was quite a character and rather bedraggled. This guy had obviously seen a lot of life, as well as a lot of other prisons. (he’d spent time in prison in Pakistan (on death row) as well as the US apparently.)
Wives and children live inside the prison with inmates.
As well as Stuart and myself there were also a lot of other tourists in the room. Stuart started off by telling us about the foundation that he has set up to help the foreign wives and children that also live in the prison. He then allowed us to ask him whatever questions we so wished. One thing to note is that every tourist that enters the prison pays Stuart 250 Bolivianos (equivalent to around 20GBP) Some of this cash goes to the foundation but the bulk of it pays off the guards to allow us foreigners into the prison.
We also gave prisoners gifts, such as cigarettes, toothpaste, shampoo, toilet paper etc. I questioned quite heavily to the point that one of my questions (I can´t remember exactly which one) was greeted with a slap across my head. No malice was intended and it was laughed off. I asked how Stuart had ended up in the prison and it was due to carrying a large quantity of cocaine through La Paz airport. He was rumbled by a sniffer dog. So far he has spent 3 years and 10 days behind bars in San Pedro. By the time you read this he may actually be released. He is hoping to get off by insisting he can only speak Afrikaans. So far they have had trouble finding an interpreter so he could be released for this reason only…. crazy.
He is hoping to get off by insisting he can only speak Afrikaans. So far they have had trouble finding an interpreter so he could be released for this reason only…. crazy.
Once we got bored of questioning him and he got bored of us we were taken on a very short tour of the section, known as “Posta” which is the 5-star section of San Pedro, where the drug traffickers live. This section is “safe” in comparison to the other sections that house the murderers, rapists and paedophiles. We were shown Daniel´s cell (complete with ensuite), and led down a very dark corridor to the punishment room where certain prisoners are held if they commit crimes within the jail. These crimes can be as basic as having alcohol in your cell or stealing from a fellow inmate. There were 2 Bolivians inside when we poked our heads in. The cell stank and had no windows. It was grim, to say the least. Daniel told us that he once spent 1 month in there! He didn’t say what for…
After the tour, we were asked if we wanted to go with Jacques and see his room. I understood this to mean, “do you want to go and snort cocaine with Jacques in his room”. Anyway, a fair few of us stood and made our way out of the attic. We were led across the courtyard and up some stairs into his “apartment” where his wife was lying on the bed watching TV. He had all the mod cons in there, DVD player, TV, double bed, Stereo, cooker etc. It was not how I imagined a prison cell to be.
If you have the money, you can have all the luxuries you want. From your own cell, TV, cooker, and DVD player!
This is when I learned that there is actually a market for cells and sections within San Pedro. You have to buy your own cell and buy and cook your own food. There are estate agents, there are landlords that buy more than one cell (or apartment as they are referred to) and either rent them or turn them into shops. There are even restaurants inside the jail. The jail is also unlike any other as all of the guards are on the outside. The prisoners themselves run the jail from the inside. Everything in there, everything, costs money. If you have no money, then you’re practically a dead man. I have to recommend that you buy and read Marching Powder (the book I mentioned earlier) by Rusty Young. It shows what an extraordinary place San Pedro jail really is.
La Paz is one of the “safest places in Bolivia to be doing it” (in regards to taking drugs)
Anyway, I digress… We all sat down in Jacques’ room and introduced ourselves. I have to add at this point that I was the only person from my group to go with Jacques, everyone else that came with me was other tourists I hadn’t met before. As a result of this, I formed some pretty good friendships with people I hope to meet again along the route.
For example, there was Emanuel from Sweden, Curtis from Alaska, Estella from Newcastle, Megan from New York and Riccardo and Danny from London. I think just sharing this slightly scary and unique experience kind of connected us in some way. It’s not every day that you go to jail and there are people doing drugs around you whilst the guy dishing them out tells everyone that it’s the safest place in Bolivia to be doing it and that he once walked through Heathrow airport with 15 kilograms of cocaine.
It turned out that Jacques was a very good surfer from South Africa and the one thing he misses the most is, of course, the ocean. He kept asking us to call him Oceans 7 as he insisted there are 7, even though there are only 4 and 7 seas. Still, it’s best not to argue with a convicted drug trafficker when he’s high and you’re in his apartment in jail!! He was caught as he was making cocaine lollipops and candies. He is also yet to be sentenced. We stayed in his room for around 2 hours, listened to music, watched TV and asked questions until 5 pm arrived and we had to leave.
Later that night I met up with most of the people I´d been in Jacques room with, as well as the Irish I´d met on the Inka trail and we headed to an underground club called club 36. This place was almost as crazy as the jail itself. We drank and chatted about our travels and the day’s events until 8 in the morning when I headed off back to my hotel for some much-needed sleep. That is one day I will never forget, especially as when I used an ATM after the club to get some cash for the day, I left my card in the machine…