San Pedro, La Paz: The Most Fascinating Prison in the World


Stood in a leafy square in the centre of La Paz drenched in sunlight it was hard to believe one of the most notorious prisons of our time was only metres away. The gate was in spitting distance and a swarm of dirty looking men roamed just behind the bars all waiting for tourists to enter their domain. San Pedro prison shot to fame in the book Marching Powder where British drug trafficker Thomas McFadden relayed his experiences of being incarcerated in the jail run by its prisoners. I’m not convinced many if any prisons are free from corruption but San Pedro takes it to a whole new level and the locals just confirmed that everything relayed in Thomas’ memoirs is true.

Upon entering the prison as a convict, prisoners are expected to pay for the pleasure of being taken in and then again for their cell. Depending on how much money they have will define their standard of living. The top drug barons and politicians can pay their way to near luxury apartments in the elite wing of San Pedro with hot tubs and other luxury facilities. Many live somewhere in between in the various cell communities, where the prisoners let themselves in and out with their own keys. Then the very bottom of the rung, the inmates who can afford nothing shelter in the courtyard. These guys tend to be the meth heads who use every penny they have on getting the dirtiest, cheapest drugs they can find.

Property is bought sold and rented out like it is on the outside world. Entrepreneurial prisoners have a number of properties, restaurants and shops. Yes that’s right the prisoners run businesses. Coca-Cola has exclusivity on soft drinks sold within the jail and if you stand outside long enough you’ll see a delivery being made.

Basically, there aren’t many guards, the prisoners run the show and even hold elections to determine which prisoners have the authority. Some families, wives and children live within the prisons crumbling walls. What a place to grow up! The punishments for crime within the prison are harsh. Many beatings are given but ‘The Well’ is one of the worst sounding tortures as you’re thrown in a huge well of water and fight for your own survival.

There’s a cocaine factory inside where the purest coke is produced and used within its walls and exported out. As we stood outside we were shown a little hatch in the roof where the bundles of coke are chucked out for the dealers waiting in the square. I had a big decision to make stood outside San Pedro: should I go in?

If you haven’t read Marching Powder this may sound odd as San Pedro is still very much a functioning dangerous prison. But the book details Thomas’ lucrative prison tour business after he bribed his way out for a night on the town and brought a young lady back. She told her mates and at its peak, 60 tours a day ran in San Pedro. Thomas is now free and if you believe the net then the tours have stopped – not true. It’s still very easy to get into San Pedro, in fact it costs very little. But and it’s a big but its very difficult to get out again.

The guards that roam outside with guns are pretty much for show. Once you’re inside it’s the inmates rules and sure you’ll probably get a tour, you may even make it to the end without being raped but then you have to bribe your way out again and the stakes are high. You may as well hand over everything you have. Oh and if you think you’re clever and go in with nothing expect to be followed back to your hostel/hotel and get mugged for all your possessions like two young lads did.

I was gutted, this prison community absolutely fascinates me and I’d love to report back on its insides but the stakes were too high. I had to settle for walking round its outside walls where there is loads of evidence of escapes. There are huge patches of brickwork that look like its been recently replaced. Little towers for look-out and well type structures which look like exit routes around the prison. I saw a water delivery being made and one of the back doors was flung wide open. You’re not allowed to photograph the prison, even from the outside. If you’re spotted taking snaps you’ll have your camera taken off you and all photos deleted. I took only a few.

As you stroll past the wide front gates the prisoners are easy to see. Two local ladies told us to wait and see the cocaine bundles being thrown out the hatch but sadly that didn’t happen during my time in the square. It’s difficult to imagine the world inside when you’re stood in the beaming sunlight and you can’t help but wonder which other prisons run just as San Pedro does.

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