One of the most famous prisons in the world is the inmate-run San Pedro, smack in the center of La Paz. Yep, I said “inmate-run”. Authorities guard the gates, but within the walls of the block-sized facility, the prisoners run the operations.
Years ago, tours of the prison were high up on the adventurist’s itinerary for La Paz, but the government has cracked down on them. It’s still possible to get inside, but you’ll need to make an effort and run into the right people. People like our new friend, New York Dave.
The first time we walked through Plaza Sucre, Dave pounced on us like a puma on prey. Barefoot and dressed in dirty, ripped clothing, he immediately struck up a conversation with us. Dave explained that he was a prisoner in San Pedro, but was allowed outdoors a few hours a day. Twelve years ago, he was jailed on trumped-up drug charges, but would be released in two weeks. The story sounded fishing, but his enthusiasm for his impending release was convincing, as were his answers to our “gotcha” questions.
We allowed Dave to walk us around the plaza and tell us about the prison. He clearly knew a lot about its history and the society within. San Pedro was built in 1895, with a capacity of 400 prisoners. Today, about 1500 mostly non-violent drug offenders are crammed inside, including quite a few foreigners. San Pedro is a city unto itself, with market stalls, organized elections, barbershops, restaurants, and groups of children playing. Coca-Cola has even purchased exclusive advertising rights within the walls! Families move in with their husbands and fathers, and a lively cocaine trade keeps the prison economy running smoothly — de facto legal, since policeman almost never venture inside.
Dave possibly could have gotten us into San Pedro, but neither Jürgen nor I had any desire. As compensation for his helpful history of the prison, he asked if we could buy him some coffee at the store. “That big jar should last for the rest of my two weeks!” At the checkout line, he added a bag of sugar and sardines, pushing his luck, then said goodbye.
A couple minutes later, we saw him at a different store, selling back the groceries for cash. I couldn’t have been any less shocked, and Dave didn’t even try and disguise what he was doing. Regardless of his tricks, or possibly because of them, we had a great time talking to one the more interesting characters we’ve had a chance to meet in La Paz.
In 2003, British citizen Rusty Young, a one-time inmate of San Pedro, wrote an extremely popular account of his prisoner days called Marching Powder. We haven’t read it yet, but have been told that it’s an engaging look inside one of the world’s strangest makeshift societies.