Article from Backpacker Magazine, February 2002 and featured on RTE’s “Morning Glory” with Ronan Kelly and Kay Sheehy and RTE’s “Around Midnight” with Donal Herlihy.
Paul Martin visits multiple-murders, sex offenders and drug lords at the notorious La Paz prison
Waiting outside San Pedro prison gates I reckon I’d finally lost it. OK, so I was in La Paz, Bolivia, the world’s highest capital at 3,800 metres above sea level. But altitude could hardly explain why I was about to walk unguarded into a South American prison where most of the 1,400 inmates were connected with Bolivia’s cocaine trade.
Glancing again at the dozens of hardened-faced men (why had so many of them one badly damaged eye?) pressed against the prison gates ten yards away and then at the two attractive Aussie women beside me, I began to get cold feet. These men facing us were convicted multiple-murderers, rapists, child-molestors, drug-lords and petty-criminals and without the protection of a single guard we were about to walk in among them.
Perhaps unique in the world, the inside of San Pedro jail never sees an official warden. It is completely the domain of the prison mafia. And the few slovenly dressed guards slumped over the simple admissions desk beside the defunct security metal detector or hunched over their 40 year old rifles were hardly inspiring. And why should they be when the prison mafia basically owned them. Bribe a prison guard 10 or 15 times his official monthly salary (of less than $220) in one of South America’s poorest countries (where the monthly average pay is $60) and it is remarkable how slack visitor searches can be. Everything is available in San Pedro prison, if you have the money: guns, knives, alcohol, female and male prostitutes, and of course any type of drug you care for. The prison is the cheapest place in La Paz to buy drugs (an ounce of cocaine goes for 20 Bolivianos, less than $3) promoting a bustling trade among visiting locals.
We soon noticed a small, athletic-looking man, wearing a blue hat, making bookie signals at us from behind the prison gates and we knew this must be Luis, the prisoner who gives the jail tours. A few minutes later he beckoned us to the gates and explained the routine.
Pay 10 Bolivianos up-front, he told us in his heavily Hispanic US accent, and at the end of the 45 minute tour, pay the remaining 60 Bolivianos (a total of about $10). Hardly in a position to argue, we walked nervously in among the prison populace listening to Luis’ story.
Bolivian by birth, his family had moved to the US when he was a baby, only to return home as diplomats when he was a young adult. This was a godsend for him as with his uncle now behind bars he easily took over the family drug-routes. He made five successful runs, importing two kilos of cocaine each time. The purchase price in Bolivia was $2000, while the sale price in Florida was $80,000, so he netted a cool $78,000 profit on each run. But on his sixth trip customs forgot to apply a diplomatic sticker to his suitcase, and for the first time it was checked and he was busted.
“Christ” he grimaced to us without the least remorse. “Do you know that by the time I was 21 I’d over $300,000 in the bank and if it weren’t for those idiots in customs I’d now be living in Monaco as a tax exile.”
Only when Luis explained to us more about the prison system did I begin to breath more freely, knowing we were perfectly safe. “In high season I give 60 tours a day, at $10 a go that’s $600. I take 25% of it and the rest goes to the prison Godfather and the General”. If the gringo trade dried up, it didn’t take a genius to realise the Godfather wouldn’t be a happy man. So prisoners were unlikely to harm us visitors.
“See that guy”, Luis said nodding to the silent, milky-eyed prisoner who’d been inconspicuously accompanying us since we’d entered. “He’s your guard. He’s in here for manslaughter. He was trained by the guerrillas and has killed three men. In our prison mafia he’s a major, I’m only a captain. He obeys orders and takes care of whoever the Godfather tells him to take care of, understand? Whenever we’re inside, he always has his hand inside his pocket, on his weapon. I’ve been doing these tours for three years and in all that time we’ve never had so much as the theft of a tourist.”
Coming to a new prison block, Luis nodded to a rather non-descript, paunch-bellied, middle-aged man standing outside in a white shirt and slacks. This, he told us, was the prison Godfather. He directs the whole jail economy, decreeing what was to be done and resolving any “difficulties” that might arise. “What’s he in for?” I asked. “You name it, he’s done it,” Luis replied. “Murder, extortion, drugs, banks, the lot. He’s here for life. And I MEAN life. People on the outside never want him to leave this place. See those slashes on his arms? They’re self-inflicted. The tried to move him to the high-security prison a few years ago and he cut himself to be returned. Only when he cut off his left testicle did they finally let him back in. He’s the man in here”.
Suitably intimidated, we watched the Godfather unlock a chain – with no guards the prisoners hold all the keys inside the jail – and beckon us into the small kitchen block. In one corner two meek-looking men were cleaning and peeling vegetables.
“This is the rapists and child-molesters’ block”, Luis remarked. “You’ve probably noticed that we have kids inside here and a lot of visiting wives and girlfriends. There are 200 children living in the prison. Most were born here – wives are allowed to stay with their husbands for 30 Bolivianos a night. The kids leave for school every day and return in the afternoon. We take care of them and our women here”.
Many rapists and child molesters, knowing what awaits them, commit suicide before even getting near the prison. “Those who do arrive are taken by the Godfather to another part of the prison where he whips them 25 times across the back with a metal chain. Most die from that”, Luis continued. “The chain usually snaps their spinal chords. The guys who survive are then brought here and have a hot pepper pushed up their ass with a metal poker.” Asking how many survive, Luis answered me over his shoulder as we moved onto another block. “About 2 out of every 20. Rapists and Child Molesters just don’t survive in Bolivia”.
We were now near the end of the tour and sat down to pay the 60 Bolivianos to the General, a 23 year old (looking at least 30) who had recently materialised beside us. Like Luis, he was born in Bolivia but reared in the States – in DC – where he’d become involved with gangs, learnt how to use a gun and a knife and had been imprisoned and then deported – all before he was 18. He’s been inside since he was 17 for manslaughter.
His eyes, like our guard’s, were glazed, his face was completely impassive and the occasional nasal sniff showed he was a frequent cocaine users.
The money tucked in his pocket, he started telling us about his past, his police escapes and gang-fight stories. To be only 23 and at the top of the prison hierarchy was quite something, Luis explained. To get there he’d taken out most of the other top men in the prison. He was a renowned knife fighter. He’d never been beaten. On this prompt, non-chalantly but almost quicker than we could see, he whipped out a thick knife from the elastic band of his boxer shorts. I was sitting only a yard from him and seeing his face I immediately understood why he was a very feared man.
He soon stood up to leave and held out his hand to me. I was reluctant to shake hands with a mass-murderer, but I was even more reluctant to refuse. I shook it with a firm handshake.
Leaving the jail a few minutes later, the guards waved us through as if we’d just been on a dull museum visit. They were well paid. What did they care about another few startled gringos leaving with another exaggerated travel story to tell their spoilt, rich friends back home?