The name on the lips of every backpacker passing through La Paz, and advertised on every tour agency’s signs and fliers, is San Pedro. La Paz’s lack of superlative tourist attractions has allowed San Pedro to become one of the hottest backpacker destinations in the city.
San Pedro prison, located in central La Paz and just a short hop from the main tourist burrow, was catapulted to fame in 2002 with the publication of Marching Powder, which tells the story of Thomas McFadden, an Englishmen caught moving cocaine through Bolivia and subsequently left to languish in San Pedro prison, awaiting trial. The destitution and corruption a the heart of the Bolivian judicial system had spawned this prison, where prisoners were forced to pay for their cells, if they could afford them, and where drug barons lived in penthouse cells with cable TV. The families of poorer inmates lived in the prison, coming and going through the main gate, to attend school or visit the markets before returning to sleep within the guarded walls.
The entrepreneurial McFadden started offering prison tours, whereby seriously hardcore backpackers could visit the tour, spend the night in a cell, and avail themselves of the ample quantities of cocaine – said to be the best and purest in Bolivia – produced in the guts of the prison.
McFadden was eventually released, as was the book, leading to disintegration of the prison tours. Thereafter they have persisted as rumours, resurrected from time to time by enterprising inmates, and causing a headache for guidebook authors; how to deal with one of La Paz’s most intriguing sites, given that it was potentially very dangerous (rumours echo about of tours gone wrong, of disappearing money, and of the occasional assault), and very far from being legal. The current Lonely Planet Bolivia volume offers general details about the prison, which are no different to those given in Marching Powder, but no clues as to how to actually arrange a tour.
By the time I arrived in Bolivia word was out that the tours were operating more successfully than ever. They had been cleaned up and were very safe. When I finally made it to La Paz I wandered around the walls of the prison, and in the space of about fifteen minutes, while sitting in the plaza outside the prison, I saw three tour groups enter. I was offered the chance to join one of these groups, but didn’t have the 250 bolivianos ($40-50ish) needed to get in. If I’d had the cash on me I almost certainly would have joined the tour, out of obligation if nothing else.
By the time I returned to La Paz less than a week later, the tours had been shut down. There was no one in the plaza offering tours, and no gringos passing through the gates and into the prison.
A new word was out; an article had appeared in The Guardian in the UK, explaining exactly how to join a tour – who to talk too, how much to pay, and what to expect once inside. This posed a very serious problem; the tours were only possible while they were unofficial. They depended on corruption and blind eyes being turned, and existed only because officially they didn’t exist. An industry built on bribes and feigned ignorance can only function for as long as there is no public scrutiny. As soon as the tours were publicised and official, something had to be done to stop them.
Officially the prison tours were shut down as part of an effort to combat the corruption about the prison. Unofficially, rumours got about that the official powers of the prison were unhappy with their cut of the now officially advertised prices.
And further in the distance lurked another fact; Brad Pitt has bought the rights to Marching Powder, and his production company is currently completing a film adaptation of the book. When this is released San Pedro will become very much public knowledge, and it will be next to impossible to deny the cocaine labs, the bribed guards and officially illegal prison tours that are all a daily reality of life in San Pedro.
And for me there is the ongoing conundrum; I feel obliged to visit San Pedro, to prove myself a consummate traveller by visiting the prison and writing about it. But on the other hand I have no desire to be one of these parasitic gringos who bribe guards, enter the prison, and so become a part of the whole problem of the corrupt Bolivian judicial and penal systems. Every Bolivian I have heard talk about San Pedro speaks about it with a kind if embarrassed bafflement; why would all these gringos on limited time and money, bother visiting one of the ugliest, most corrupt places in their country. Every gringo, on the other hand, talks about the prison as the ultimate exotic destination; a mixture of crime and violence and drugs and a world very different to the one back home.
For now I find myself siding with the Bolivians. Ten days ago I would have visited the prison, and almost did. Now it seems like just another over-exploited tourist trap, which does more harm than good to the people of Bolivia.
(Later I wrote an update on the San Pedro prison tours…)