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A black-market prison tour in downtown La Paz

“PRISON TOURS ARE ILLEGAL” reads a prominently placed sign near the entrance of the Loki travel agency in downtown La Paz.

Presumably such screaming notification intends to unequivocally answer a frequently asked question, yet the use of such an ominously bold font also signifies the mild intent to dissuade visits to what has become one of the world’s most infamous underground tourist destinations.

Innocently nestled amidst the bustling narrow alleys which snake their way around the lower reaches of the steep canyon that hosts Bolivia’s capital, the innocuous structure and unassuming white walls of San Pedro Prison hide one of South America’s most lurid attractions.

Made famous by the 2003 book, Marching Powder, which detailed the five year San Pedro stint of British drug smuggler Thomas McFadden, the maximum security prison was revealed to have its own micro-economy, business community, cocaine processing plant, divisive caste structure and lucrative tourist trade. As suggested by the book’s author, Rusty Young, San Pedro has come to represent a tragic and corrupt microcosm of all that is institutionally and socially at fault within wider Bolivian society.

Endemic corruption, cronyism, racial segregation, narcotics and the raw tales of pain and human emotion which have emanated from those who visit San Pedro confirm such assumptions, yet they have only added to the aura of mystery and intrigue which surrounds one of Latin America’s poorest countries and its troubled social landscape.

Despite the loudly signposted declaration of prison tour illegality, entry to San Pedro – situated only metres away from La Paz’s bustling business district – is fairly simply achieved. A request to “visitar” at the prisons gate is instantly and enthusiastically granted by a burly guard who brandishes a welcoming smile that does far more to reassure than his accompanying shotgun. After parting with 250 Boliviano (£23), the confiscation of all cameras and the signing of what can only be assumed is the guest book, gates are opened and visitors are instantly met with an equally warm and enthusiastic chaperone.

Unlike a conventional tour guide, the suspicious and highly attentive escort is a prison inmate of Eastern European descent named Marco, fulfilling his job as one of San Pedro’s guides.

Such a job title complete with accompanying business card may seem strange in a fully operational prison but it is merely the first glimpse of San Pedro’s many eccentric contradictions and idiosyncrasies.

After brief welcomes and introductions Marco begins to explain how the prison operates. Marching across the courtyard, which doubles up as a five-a-side football pitch, he tells how San Pedro is home to more than 1,500 prisoners and is divided into eight sectors of varying comfort and luxury. Those with no money often sleep rough in the prison corridors or in single room cells occupied by as many as five people in poorer parts of the prison. These areas are off limits for tourists and “too dangerous to visit”.

Those with the financial means on the other hand can afford to purchase a private cell in a more affluent section complete with luxury conveniences such as en suite bathrooms, televisions, fridges, freezers, personal computers and telephones. One prisoner even splurged on extending his own cell so that he could have a view overlooking the La Paz skyline. It is an irony not lost on Marco that many of those incarcerated within San Pedro “live better and more comfortably than the vast majority of Bolivians. I even know some people who repeatedly commit silly crimes so they will be sent back to prison where they are guaranteed one meal a day,” he says.

Many prisoners in the richer parts of the prison fund this relatively comfortable and luxurious lifestyle by operating their own prison businesses. Most employ inmates from other areas of San Pedro in the process, theoretically ensuring that money trickles down the system to all levels of the self governing society.

“We have restaurants, games rooms, bars, shops, guided tours, hairdressers, laundries, carpenters and handicraft stalls,” states Marco, before casually adding “we also make drugs.”

The infamous San Pedro cocaine processing plant which attracts many a western drug tourist is real, Marco confirms, to his disbelieving guests. It is situated in another part of the facility with the full knowledge and cooperation of the guards who rarely venture inside any of the prisons eight sections. Base cocoa is brought to San Pedro in paste form and after the ensuing chemical process leaves the prison laboratory for sale at La Paz’s nightspots and for export, mainly to America and Europe.

“The cocaine trail goes from Bolivia across the border to Brazil, then via boat across the Atlantic to Equatorial Guinea. From there it is split depending on the buyers with most going North to Europe and some going down to South Africa,” explains Stewart, a now elderly ex-Rhodesian special forces operative and San Pedro inmate who was caught making the first leg of this very journey at La Paz’s El Alto airport in late 2006.

Relaxing in the two story cell he calls home alongside his wife – who pays to live inside with him – and a healthy measure of imported Scottish whisky, Stewart explains the reasons why such a system based upon corruption and exploitation is allowed to exist.

“The guards make 600 Boliviano (£55) a month. If tourists are willing to pay more than a third of that each just to enter then it makes sense for them to allow this as they can make a lot of money. They are not rich people and have families to feed and I’m sure they feel no guilt as their bosses are even more corrupt. They keep all the entrance money to themselves and anything else the tourists buy or pay for when they’re here the prisoners will keep.”

“The tourists who come here can try the drugs made in the prison. It’s the purest cocaine in Bolivia. If anybody wants to stay here for a few days and party with guys who live here then they can pay for a cell and stay as long as they like.”

More bemusing than the casualness with which Stewart explains how the prison system operates – as if it was the most natural thing in the world – is the fact that many prisoners families live inside with them. A testosterone heavy environment containing proven violent criminals seems a dangerous place for women and children yet a lack of formal education and skills means some have no hope of survival on the outside without their spouses.

“We have two nurseries here which the young children go to while the older kids leave the prison during the day to go to school outside,” explains Stewart.

Yet despite the provision of such facilities, it would be foolish to assume that such an upbringing can be regarded as anything other than abnormal. So many proven offenders in a confined space ensure that the potential exposure to violent crime is drastically higher than it would be outside of the prison walls.

Official statistics reveal that there are on average four deaths per month in San Pedro from either “natural causes” or “accidents”, while knife fights are known to be common amongst prisoners. In his accounts of his time inside San Pedro, Thomas McFadden even describes the brutal rape and murder of an inmate’s seven year old daughter at the hands of another prisoner. However such horror stories are dismissed as exaggerations by Stewart.

“Don’t believe everything you read. 75 percent of the book (Marching Powder) is bull shit. There is a strict code between the prisoners and everyone tries their best to create strong communities. Anyone found to be breaking the rules is instantly thrown out of the safety of their neighbourhood and left to fend for themselves. It’s the same rules that keep tourists safe when they are in here.”

Yet despite such reassurances of normality, it is hard to avoid the self perpetuating circle of corruption and way of the knife which continue to make San Pedro such a source of fascination and a voyeuristic tourist draw. Come see a collection of the animals society deemed unfit to roam freely in a confined environment of self governance while taking advantage of the cheap drugs they produce seems to remain the unspoken reason behind the curious attraction of San Pedro’s prison tours.

From their own experiences with tourists and visitors from all over the world such sentiments and intrigues are easily recognised by both Stewart and Marco.

“It’s like a zoo or a safari, true. But it’s something we must do to survive,” says Stewart.

(Both Stewart and Marco requested that their full names not be used)

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