Trip Report: San Pedro Prison Tour

Trip Report: San Pedro Prison Tour

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

La Paz, Bolivia — As instructed, we woke up early this morning so we could walk over to San Pedro prison by 8 am. Being a Sunday, things seemed a lot calmer in the streets and around the prison.

The entrance to San Pedro prison is through a small archway, inside which stands a few guards, a metal detector, and a small table. Behind this is a locked gate which opens into the prison courtyard itself, and through this gate you see the prisoners mulling around. To the right of the entrance, a small line forms of the inmates wives  and children, waiting to be let in; Thursday, Saturday and Sunday are visiting days.

We waited outside the front entrance and drank fresh squeezed orange juice (2.50 B) from a vendor across the street, waiting for our contact from yesterday to show up. Before we could find her, however, we were being motioned by the guards in front to come over quickly. We crossed the street and followed a non-uniformed man through the entrance way and to the right into some administration offices, quickly out of site.

Inside the office, the man introduced himself and explained that our contact was not available this morning, but everything was fine and he would sort everything out for us. We were asked if we had any cameras or cellular phones with us, and if so, they must be left behind in the office as they were forbidden inside. He explained that our guides would all speak English, and we would be escorted by two bodyguards.

A lady guard, in full uniform and full corruption, then collected our "entrance fee" (read bribe) of  400 B ($57 USD). She then recorded our names and passport numbers, and marked on our inner forearm a code; my code was 3-N. This piece of paper with our names and passport numbers would be the only record of us entering the prison and the writing on our arms was the only system in place to insure we would be accounted for upon leaving.

Markings to account for us before entering the prison.

It's important to note that everything about this tour is illegal. In fact, it's disingenuous to even call it a tour; at its core you are voluntarily incarcerating yourself for a few hours. There is no separation between tourist and inmate.

There are no visitor observation platforms, there are no waiver forms, and there would be no one officially accompanying us inside the prison, or for that matter, acknowledging that we are even inside the prisons; at the highest levels of the Bolivian government, they deny that these tours even exist. The guards simply take the bribes, unlock the gate, turn their heads, and hand us over to inmates who will be our guide and protection inside.

"Listo?" asked our contact. We walked out of the office, turned to the right, where a guard was unlocking the gate, and showed our marked arms as we entered into the courtyard of the prison. The gate slammed behind us, and an inmate inside said in English, "Follow me." It was at this point, we all realized, shit just got real. Inside the prison people roam freely through the labyrinth of courtyards, buildings and hallways.

We followed him up a stairwell to an office, which amazingly had a computer and seemed to be used as the official tourist office inside the prison. We sat down and again were asked to record our names and passport numbers. He explained that they would need to split us into two groups, one group of three and one of four, and that there would be nothing to worry about as we would be in the care of excellent guides and bodyguards.

Our guide was named Gabrielle. Gabrielle came to the United States from Bolivia when he was 8 years old where he lived in Los Angeles. He learned English while attending grade school, high school, and finally Los Angeles Community College—it was at college that he got mixed up with the wrong crowd. One day two Colombians approached Gabrielle, handed him $10,000 cash and made him an offer. "Take this money and buy whatever you want—clothes, a car, jewelry—it's yours to keep. Call us in the morning for your assignment."

In Los Angeles a kilo of pure Cocaine sells for $10-15k, while In New York its $20-25k. Gabrielle was tasked with moving Cocaine across the country to take advantage of the extreme price differential. He had done in a number of times already, and was living the fast life—girls, drugs, and money were in unlimited supply.

It wasn't until his 15th trip that he was pulled over by the FBI. They approached his car, announced themselves as FBI agents, and proceeded to shoot out the tires on his new Cadillac. Out of each tire fell a kilo of cocaine, the same place he always hid the drugs when trafficking. It was over.

"No hablo ingles!", he continually lied, pretending to only speak Spanish, while they interrogated him for hours. Once they finally had a Spanish interpreter on site, the agents who arrested him explained that 4 kilos was absolutely nothing to them, that they didn't give a fuck about a small fish such as himself, and that they would let him free if he would give up info.

They were hungry for the bigger catch—his supplier. But Gabrielle kept his mouth shut, and as his interrogators became more and more frustrated with his lack of cooperation, their interrogation techniques grew more and more harsh. He would spent 3 months in the county hospital recovering from the beating they gave him during the interrogation.

After being released from the hospital, and while awaiting his trial locked up in the L.A. country jail, two of the finest and most expensive criminal defense lawyers showed up asking for him. It turns out that his boss has learned that Gabrielle had kept his mouth shut and not given up any information and sent the lawyers as a reward for his loyalty.

The lawyers turned out to be good—really good. They were able to get his sentence reduced from a potential 20+ years to a short 4 year stint. He spent time bouncing around five different prisons, including the notorious super-max Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California.

4 years later he was released, given $200 dollars and told to catch a bus down the street. He didn't get more than 2 blocks away, however, where the US ICE was waiting to arrest him for being in the country illegally. He spent 9 months detained as an illegal immigrant before being deported back to Bolivia. The California dream was over.

Back in Bolivia, Gabrielle was determined to turn things around. He met his wife, and quickly had two little girls, now 4 and 2. He was driving a taxi cab, and was crime free for over 4 years. As is typical in Bolivia though, he was approached one day and made another offer.

"Take this 5000 B ($700 USD) and be our driver for the day. We are going to rob a house, and we will give you fifty percent. Deal?" Back in the States, he worked at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, where minimum wage was $5.25 at the time. In Bolivia, minimum wage is 350 B ($50 USD) a month; barely enough to support yourself let alone raise a family. He spent so long crime-free already, but Gabrielle needed the money and needed it badly. The money would go along way for his family, and he was only going to be the driver—he decided to go along with the plan, just this once.

Everything went smoothly, he rid himself of everything linking him to the crime, and vowed not to get involved with anything shady again. However, 30 days later, he was pulled over by the police and told his license plate matched from the robbery; someone had snagged the plates on his taxi during the robbery. It was back to prison for Gabrielle, and as a first time offender in Bolivia, he was sentenced to 18 months in the famous San Pedro prison, where we found ourselves today.

The San Pedro prison is unlike any prison elsewhere. Inside the prison, there is an entire economy, community, and political system. There is no control or involvement by the guards; except for a prisoner count at 7 am and 6 pm, the prisoners are left to roam free inside the compound without supervision. Prisoners are allowed to move their family in if they desire, with many wives choosing to live inside with their husband and children.

When you first arrive at San Pedro, you are given nothing—not a toothbrush, bar of soap or blanket. You are not even given a cell. Cells must be either purchased or rented from within one of seven different communities, each of which bands together as an extended family to support each other.

Each community has its own leader (Delgado) who acts as a father figure to the group, and treasurer who maintains the finances of the community. Cells range from the low end of 1000 B ($150 USD) up to 3500 B ($500 USD).

If you do not have monetary support from family on the outside, you will forced to work for whichever community decides to adopt you, cleaning the toilets, showers and hallways. Such people are called solitarios and sleep in a communal sleeping area, working day and night until they can earn enough to buy or rent their own cell. Cable television can be bought for 20 B a month (HBO, Cinemax, Showtime included) and hygienic products can be bought from any of the many stores on the inside.

On the flip side, those with money are able to do well for themselves by investing in extra cells to rent out. Others invest in a business on the inside; a barber shop, a small store, or a restaurant. Some of the more entrepreneurial prisoners buy pool tables and rent them out for 5 B an hour, providing them with residual income.

Gabrielle seemed quite passionate about necessity of prudent personal finance, constantly insisting the need to be shrewd with your money and invest in things that would provide income while inside, explaining how upon release, these inmates are able to sell their investments and recoup a small nest egg for life on the outside. He recounted his disappointment in himself for not saving up money while living in California, back when he was was rolling in cash.

"Follow me" said Gabrielle as we left the upstairs office room and walked through a maze of hallways and cells, him leading, followed by a bodyguard, the four of us (one girl) and another bodyguard. "Please, ask me anything you want. I am here to make this comfortable and safe and a positive experience for you guys. Anything you want to ask, do not be shy, and do not be scared, you are in the best of hands," pointing to our guards.

Both guards seemed unusually small, but walked with an air of confidence and ease. Gabrielle explained that they were in for 30-years to life, and because of this, commanded the respect of all the other prisoners. They could put a stop to anything within the prison, just by opening their mouths. He told us that later we would be able to ask them any questions we might have, and in the back of my head I wondered what crimes they were in for.

The first community we visited was the least desirable one, with the cheapest cells and most foul smelling hallways. Each community has its own positive and negatives—the more expensive ones have larger cells, and better washing, showering and bathroom facilities. The benefit of this community, however, was it was one of that allowed you to live with your family.

Small blankets hung over the doorways, and woman and children stared out behind the curtains. The children played with handcrafted yo-yos and ran about, most no older than 3 years old, and none aware that they are living inside a prison.

Gabrielle has worked out a system with his wife, where she lives inside for one month with their two kids, and then one month on the outside to earn extra money to support him. As all the prisoners in San Pedro are men, the woman are free to leave as they wish, but most prefer to stay with their husbands and children on the inside.

"Follow me" said Gabrielle as he led us up to the roof where men were doing their Sunday laundry. Up on the roof,  he pointed out the guard tower across the way. It was empty, the guard probably taking a nap Gabrielle explained. From the roof we were able to see into the only segregated area of the prison, community two, where the richest of the rich live.

In this area, known as Petras, they are able to build apartments, some costing up to 35,000 B ($5000 USD). They eat better food, enjoy better facilities, and hire better lawyers. The luxury of apartment that can be built is only limited to the supplies you can bring is, which, given enough money, is unlimited.

The third and fourth communities each offered better and bigger cells respectively. It was here that Gabrielle explained the political system inside the prison. Inside the prison walls, the guards do not regulate; everything is self regulated by the prisoners. For example, the inmates are responsible for letting themselves in and out of their own cells, using padlocks to secure them when not in use. If anyone is caught messing with another persons property, things operate on a three strike system. Gabrielle explained "First time, we beat you. Second time, we beat you until you bleed. Third time, you go to Palmasola prison."

As long as you do not cause trouble, inmates are free to wonder between the different community areas. Each one has its own unique features; one has a football field, another a basketball court, another a public television. Twice a year four on four football tournaments are held between the different communities; the last tournament left Gabrielle's team as champion. Money prizes and beer is awarded to the winners, and a large glass case showcases various giant championship trophies.

Each community is run by a delegado; anyone can be a delegado, but must be well respected and earn the position after many years. The delegado is responsible for resolving disputes, assigning cells, and making important decisions. He is looked upon as a father figure within the community, and is the only person that knows the true nature of each inmates crimes. While it is an important position of power, being delegado is fraught with headaches as you are constantly resolving disputes and problems. Gabrielle said he luckily avoided having one strike on his record by explaining his situation to his delegado and having it resolved peacefully.

For the more math oriented prisoners, the community treasurer is another position one can aspire for. The treasurer is responsible for all monetary transactions and keeping the communities stash of money safe. For example the majority of the money we spent bribing are way in, does not, in fact go to the guards; it is distributed among each of the communities and inmates once a month.

Until that time, it is kept secure by the treasurer and an income and expense report is prepared noting all line items. When repairs need to be made to the cells, a wall needs to be repainted, or a new basketball hoop installed, it comes out of the community fund after being democratically voted upon by each prisoner within the given community.

The next stop was into the kitchen, locked behind a heavy padlock and chain. Inside dozens of giant pots boiled with soup and meat. It is rumored that the pedophiles and rapists are assigned to the kitchen in order to keep them segregated. but Gabrielle explained that no one truly knows what anyone's crime is except the delegados.

This information is closely guarded by the leaders, as otherwise it is without doubt that the sexual offenders would be relieved of their lives by the more justice oriented inmates. The punishment for murder outside the prison is 30 years to life, but inside, killing a man only adds 2 years to your sentence.

With this in mind, we stood within only inches of sharp metal knives as the cooks chopped up ingredients for lunch. Monday, Wednesday, Friday inmates are given chicken and meat for lunch; the other days its only soup. Breakfast is nothing more than a small roll and some coffee, tea, or coca-cola.

Despite constant demands by the inmates, dinner has never been served as far back as Gabrielle knows, or at least since he started his sentence 15 months ago. Of course, the dinner options are numerous if you have money to spend in the many restaurants scattered around the prison, many run by the wives of inmates straight out of their family cells.

Outside the kitchen sat a young dutch man, reportedly only in for less than 3 months. He wore a beanie with the colors of the Holland flag, and stared into space like an over dosed zombie. His name is Sebastian, the same guy we spoke with the day before. 90% of the prisoners are Bolivian in for a range of crimes from robbery to murder, the other 10% are foreigners, all of whom are in for drug trafficking.

There has been two escapes in San Pedro since its opening 150 years ago. The first was by 11 Peruvians, who in Shawshank Redemption style, used spoons to dig a tunnel through one of the outside walls. Like the movie, they would drop the sand throughout the prison during the day. They only were noticed missing, when a woman came into her nearby liquor store one morning and found all her liquor missing and a giant hole in the wall. The police followed the tunnel back into San Pedro prison, and to this day, the Peruvians are at large.

The other escape was another foreigner, an Argentine man who had a habit of wearing nice suites inside the prison. One day during a lawyer visitation day, he coincidentally wandered over to the "rich" section, back before it was kept separated, and was approached by a guard. The guard, confusing him as one of the well-dressed lawyers said "Excuse me sir, visiting hours are over, you need to exit the prison."

As a foreigner being ordered by one of the guards to leave, he no doubt took up his opportunity, and quickly caught a cab outside the prison to the city of Ourillo. It is here that he met up with an ex-prison friend to stay with for a few days. His luck ended here, however, as his supposed friend proceeded to turn him in to the police. The Argentine is now back in San Pedro, now however, finishing 12 months in isolation before being sent to Palmasola.

The last potential escape route involves jumping from the top of the outside wall, easily accessible from the roof. There is no barbed wire, no electric fences, and hardly any guards keeping watch. Gabrielle mentioned that he had considered it, but being about a 50 foot drop, was concerned he might break his leg. With only 3 months left on his sentence, he has decided to keep this option on the back-burner for now.

While touring the final three communities, Gabrielle continuously compared and contrasted his experience in prison in California versus La Paz. The simultaneous insight into both worlds, was by far the most interested aspect of the tour.

In California you get three meals a day, consisting of a half a chicken; in Bolivia only one meal limited to a chicken leg. In California you get a prison cell, a bed, a blanket, soap and a toothbrush; in Bolivia you get nothing, and have to pay for a cell to sleep in. While living conditions are better in California prisons, the choice is easy for him—prison in Bolivia is much better. He equates it to a prison camp in the States—you are free to roam about, you can live with your family, you can earn money, and do as you please as long as you don't cause trouble.

To sneak contraband into the prison in La Paz, you simply need to give the lieutenant in charge a proper offer—generally 50% of the value of whatever you are trying to bring in. This allows prisoners to have televisions, DVD players, alcohol, and anything else you can imagine. In contrast, he explained the process of bringing contraband into Pelican Bay in California—because a much smaller portion of the guards are corrupt, you have to be much more careful—the occasional one, however, turns a blind eye for the right price.

As a US citizen, it was shocking and fascinating to hear straight from the horses mouth how illegal contraband is smuggled into super-max prisons in the US. Corruption is omnipresent in all countries, just better obscured, efficient, and hidden from the public in certain parts of the world.

"One day I received a letter from a friend" says Gabrielle. "On the underside of the postage stamp was a single cap of heroin. The guards delivered the letter to my cell and said 'Gabrielle—I know whats in this letter. How do you want to handle this?' I didn't want to get in trouble, but needed the money, and explained I would quickly distribute the drugs and he would cause no problems. The guard handed him the letter, and walked away.

"Towards Christmas of that year, I wanted to buy some presents for my family back home. With more confidence this time, but still unsure of who I could use, I nervously approached the sergeant, and said 'Sir, I would very much like to be able to give some presents to my family for Christmas—can you help me get something in?'

I was nervous I would get in trouble. Asking the wrong person can lead to severe sanctions. In this case, the sergeant acted shocked, saying 'You've never asked me such a favor before...' paused, and then explained he would allow me to bring some drugs in for half the profits. Unlike the prisons here, you cant just hand money over to a guard in a California prison. He took me to this private office and gave me an account to have money wired too. I made a phone call, had the money wired, and the drugs were delivered to me through the mail without issue for me to sell inside the prison."

We continued up to a tiny corridor, famous for the death of three inmates in the 70's. A drug cartel, convicted for smuggling 50 kilos of cocaine, controlled the cell block. Three unrelated inmates wanted to move into the cell block, and continuously pestered the leader. Finally reaching a breaking point, he told them to return later that night to negotiate terms.

Unbeknownst to them, he had been able to bring a gun into the prison, and he executed the three of them. He then barricaded the door, and let the bodies lie there for three days before the police were able to break down the cell block door. We stood in the exact spot the bodies laid, while Gabrielle reassured us that things have changed.

"I promise you, I guarantee you, there are no guns inside the prison now. The prison is a very different place, especially in the last five years. We are peaceful now. It is in our best interest to not fight, to not bother the tourists. The living conditions, the freedom we have, the situation is than better than any other prison in the country, and we would be stupid to risk what we have."

While these words were not very reassuring, at no point during the tour did we ever fell intimidated, scared or endangered. Our bodyguards were diligent about making sure they always kept us between the two of them, and we made sure to only talk to our guide and no one else as instructed.

Inmates would approach us and try to sell bracelets or trinkets, and our guide was very careful to explain it was not compulsory to buy, only if we wanted to. Despite already knee-deep in supporting this corrupt process, we refrained from buying things and supporting the process. Perhaps this is misguided—they are trying to make the best of their situation and Gabrielle insisted that the majority of the prisoners were good people who were forced into untenable situations.

Of course, the most profitable commodity being produced inside the prison is cocaine. San Pedro cocaine is considered some of the best and purest cocaine available, with coco leaves being an easily accessible and legal item in Bolivia, and the rest of the necessary products being easily brought in. Gabrielle explained, however, how there used to be seven different manufacturing areas in the prison and they were able to export it out—now there is only one plant left, and it is only for use within the prison; they are unable to export it.

As the tour winded down, Gabrielle prepared us for the last part of the tour called the "special room" as he referred to it where we would be able to ask anything we wanted to the guards, any last questions for him, and have a chance to partake in some "activities" if we chose before the end of the tour. We were led to the room through a maze of corridors, to a place unknown to the guards, and sat around a table.

First things first, we were instructed to give our tips to be split up amongst the guides and bodyguards; 22 employees in all, in the San Pedro prison tour industry. We were then offered coke for 100 B per gram, or a can of beer for 30 B; we declined both. We did take the opportunity to ask a few more questions though, such as how the tours began and why they are allowed.

The tours themselves were started half a decade ago by a dutch guy who was imprisoned for drug trafficking, and without family to support him, needed a way to make money. He offered to split the profits with the guards and things took off from there, with some tourists even paying to spend multiple nights in the prison, going on coke binges with the prisoners.

Things spiraled out of control in 2009 when a tourist posted a YouTube video showing them within the prison using coke. The Bolivian government cracked down, firing the head director of the prison system and declaring a ban on the tours. When the tours continued, the media jumped on the story, and filmed tourists leaving the prison and corruption in full force. Rumors began to circle about a girl tourist that was once raped inside, coke binges, and a total lack of control by the guards. Gabrielle claims these are all falsities, however, and that the media has spread many lies to try to stop the tours.

We inquired why we were unable to tour the day before and he said because the situation is still sensitive, and occasionally media will be staking out the outside as was the case the day before. This is just inconveniences though, and the show goes on as planned on a regular basis.

We were soon let out of the prison, first anxiously waiting for around 15 minutes, until finally they unlocked the gate. We were told to leave to the right, walk straight down the street, move fast, and don't look at anyone as we disappeared into the city.

It's a prison tour I will never forget.