Monday, 22 March 2010

There Must Be an Angel Playing with my Heart – a tale from San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows
Leonard Cohen 'The Old Revolution'

I love prison literature. I think I've read nearly all the great tales of incarceration: Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead, The Damage Done by Warren Fellows, Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, Papillion by Henri Charriere, and of course Marching Powder by Rusty Young. There is no better way to understand freedom than to have it taken away from you. Prisons produce existential accounts par excellence. And all my reading of tales of horror in prisons has convinced me of one thing; convinced me utterly and profoundly that I never want to go to prison either as an inmate or a visitor.

It was thus with no small amount of interest that I sat on the roof of Cordoba backpackers in Argentina and smoked joints with a Canadian in his late twenties and listened to him tell his story of how he had bribed his way into La Paz's San Pedro Prison in Bolivia.

For all of you not familiar with Rusty Young's book Marching Powder, San Pedro Prison is a prison that was run like no other in the world. Inmates were allowed to live with their family. They had to earn a living because nothing was free in the prison. Cells could be bought and rented. If you wanted to eat you went to one of the many restaurants in the prison or you purchased food at one of several grocery stores dotted around the house of correction. Money could buy you not only a cell with amenities but also I whole slew of other privileges including nights outside the prison. It was all based on the pandemic corruption that existed in the prison from the governor down; they nearly all took bribes and let the prisoners run the prison like a mini barter town. It had several cocaine labs. San Pedro was where the cheapest and purest cocaine came from.  And enter Thomas McFadden from the UK who was caught trying to smuggle heroin out of Bolivia. Stuck with no money and no Spanish he had to quickly adapt to his new surroundings. After many trying times he eventually learned Spanish, got an Israeli girlfriend, opened a restaurant in the prison and started a lucrative business showing backpackers around San Pedro and finishing each tour by treating the voyeuristic tourists to a cocaine binge. The tour was so famous that it made the Lonely Planet.

That was before. Before the BBC snuck cameras into the prison and exposed the corruption of the authorities and before Brad Pitt decided to make a movie about McFadden's life. That shamed the Bolivian authorities into draconian measures. The guards are regularly replaced, the infamous side door where tourists used to enter has been shut, the cocaine labs have been closed down and now inmates are no longer allowed to cohabit with their families.

For the Canadian who I had just met this was a real shame. He was on his grand tour - Central and Southern America overland through ten countries to the bottom, to Argentina. We had run into him at the end of his adventure. And of all the things he had most wanted to see and do on his journey it was to do the tour of La Paz prison. He was another chap who had the aura of indestructibility about him - the charming naiveté of youth.

And so here is his tale. Maybe his tale is one of the final traveller's tales about San Pedro. He was in La Paz, Bolivia. He had tried the two bars where you could openly consume coke. The one night the one place whose name I won’t mention was raided by the police. As is so often the case, a brief hullabaloo started seconds prior to the police arrival. Our Canadian hero, Greg, sat calmly at his table. A table of Swedes wearing superman outfits, panicked and fled into the kitchens. The police soon rounded up all the foreigners and started extracting bribes from them. 20 minutes into this procedure one of the Swedes bursts from the fridge in the bar, a frozen super hero. He just couldn’t handle the cold any longer.

Greg and the others got off lightly: just a few dollars extra down for the night. He should have heeded the warning but instead he actively pursued his dream to enter San Pedro. He eventually got hold of the telephone number of a man called ‘Angel’ who could facilitate his desire to experience the inside of a Bolivian prison. He phoned Angel and a meeting was set for 3pm the following day in a park outside the prison.

Greg arrived a bit late and desperately scoured the park to find his contact. He said he felt really ridiculous going up to several Bolivians asking them if they were called ‘Angel’. He approached one shady local who wasn’t Angel but was willing to sell Greg some coke. Greg enquired about the price out of interest. It was cheap; only 70 Bolivianos ($5). Greg was not, however, to be so easily distracted from his main purpose. He had picked up a fair amount of Spanish on his journey and proceeded to explain that though the coke offer was tempting it was an entrée into the prison that loomed up within eyesight from where they were standing that he was really wanting. The Bolivian who wasn’t Angel said he could arrange it. They haggled and agreed a price of $20 per person. A meeting was set for the next day at 4pm.

That night Greg confided in other backpackers in the hostel about his day’s triumph. Greg was a charming man whose confidence was infectious and it didn’t really surprise me that he got four other backpackers interested in doing the tour – two fellow North Americans and two Europeans.

So the fateful afternoon arrived when Greg hoped to fulfill his ambition of seeing the inside of a Bolivian prison. They found the man who wasn’t Angel and after a bit of to and fro agreed to pay him his fee in halves - half then and half when they safely exited the house of correction. No Angel reluctantly agreed. He took the money and set off. They followed him. He stopped by the main entrance and told them to wait. He then vanished around the corner. The gang of jail breakers lost heart. Where was No Angel? As they debated whether they had been fleeced, Greg spotted a prison guard and a group of civilians making their way towards the entrance of the prison. In a flash of inspiration he shuffled over and joined the back of the group. The others followed Greg. Before they knew it the prison doors had shut behind them and they were in. They could see the famous courtyard where Thomas had spent his first night shivering in the cold. They could see inmates lolling around enjoying the last of the afternoon sun and they could see a big Bolivian guard blocking their way. They were ordered into a side room next to the door keepers’ quarters and told to wait. No Angel was nowhere to be seen and it was agonizingly obvious to Greg and his followers that their money hadn’t bought them anything. They were in prison in the poorest country in South America and a tour was looking very unlikely.

They stewed in their own stupidity for thirty minutes before they were marched into the office of a more senior policeman. He soon discovered that Greg was the only gringo with Espanol.

“What are you doing in San Pedro Prison?”
“We wanted to see the prison, senor.”
“Do you want to buy marijuana?”
“No senor. We just wanted to do a sightseeing tour.”
“Do you want to buy cocaine?”
“No senor. Only the tour.”

With that the interview was over and they were led back to their previous holding pen. Another thirty minutes elapsed before a guard took them to a bigger, plusher office. They were introduced to the governor of the prison. Again it went:

“Why are you in San Pedro Prison?”
“We wanted to do a tour of the prison, senor. We paid a man to get us in.”
“Do you want to buy marijuana?”
“No senor.”
“Cocaine?”
“No senor.”

Just then two prison guards dragged a very shifty looking No Angel into the room. The guards had him cuffed. They said a few words to the governor and put a small plastic bag of powder on the table. No one needed three guesses as to what it might have been.

No Angel didn’t hesitate in putting forward his side of the story. He quickly fired off his Spanish at the governor. Greg caught the gist of it. No Angel was claiming that the gringos had given him money to score some coke for them, the coke that was presently on the gov's hardwood desk. Greg responded like his life depended on it and in some ways it probably did. He protested vociferously that No Angel was lying. The money had been for a tour of the prison, not to buy drugs.

The boss man considered the group of frightened tourists and considered No Angel. He then demanded to see the foreigners' passports. Greg explained that they had left their passports in the hostel because who would be foolish enough to bring anything valuable into a prison full of...

That last thought lingered in the air unspoken. Who would be foolish enough to want to visit a prison full of murderers and rapists, innocent and guilty, the condemned, the bottom of the slag heap?

No Angel was taken away cursing Greg. The gringos were taken away to their makeshift prison near the gate. The governor deliberated.

It took an hour or so before it was explained to Greg and the four others who were in a state of severe fear for their future liberty that they would be allowed to go. The only condition was that they would be escorted back to their hostel where they must present their passports to their police escort.

No doubt with much adrenalin charged relief the five rash gringos were lead out of the prison. They got to the hostel and made photocopies of their passports. The policeman took the copies and demanded a bribe. Greg refused and wasn't stopped from re-entering the gated hostel. The five of them watched from a window as the policeman lingered outside. He eventually gave up and drifted off.

That night they were on the news. 5 foreigners had been arrested trying to break into San Pedro Prison. I could see that Greg loved telling the tale, and that he had already told it several times. I was less certain as to whether he had drawn any lessons from his tale of near incarceration. I mentioned this and he said that if he had been sent down he would have taken over as the head gringo and tour master.  

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