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A law unto themselves: San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia

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The thriving sense of community at San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia, belies the dangers to which inmate families are exposed

Welcome to San Pedro – the strangest prison on the planet. In the centre of La Paz, it occupies an entire city block and fronts onto a picturesque plaza. From the outside, everything seems normal enough. Looking around the leafy plaza you see colourfully dressed indigenous women in bowler hats standing by carts, squeezing orange juice, and old men seated on benches, feeding pigeons. At the prison entrance, idle policemen in green uniforms lean against the 15-metre-high yellow wall. It’s only once through the heavy iron gates that the craziness begins. Inside, the sights that greet you belong to a typical Bolivian street scene. Men mill about, exchanging pleasantries. Women carry sacks of food or roast meat on gas stoves. Small girls are laughing and playing hopscotch. Young boys are shining shoes. Listless cats and mangy dogs sleep beneath tables. Walls are emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo. No one is wearing a uniform. And there is not a single guard in sight. Is this really a men’s jail?

A stroll through a maze of corridors reveals churches, market stalls and restaurants. Climbing up rickety wooden staircases you see small businesses, handicraft workshops, classrooms, a gym and a billiard hall. There’s even a football field and childcare centre. More like a city within a city than a prison, why does this place exist?

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Execution of Bolivian revolutionary Martin Lanza in the Plaza de San Pedro in 1905

In 1850, blueprints for San Pedro were drawn up following an architectural competition. Due to lack of funds, however, the winning design wasn’t constructed until 1895. It was meant to house 250 inmates. These days it holds up to 2,000 men, most convicted as part of the ‘war on drugs’.  This has caused extreme overcrowding with no change to the underlying problem: a lack of funds.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. Its government and police are notoriously corrupt. In most national prisons, inmates receive little more than a bowl of watery soup a day. So San Pedro inmates run the prison themselves, functioning as an independent community. They have developed rules, a political system and punishments, as well as a highly sophisticated economy.

As far as prisons go, San Pedro is like a hotel. Its central location makes family visiting easy. Being a minimum-security facility, conditions are far more lax than other ‘US-style’ prisons such as Chonchocoro. So places in San Pedro are in high demand.

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Inmates run the prison, which functions as an independent community with its own rules and punishments. Photograph courtesy of Danielle Pereira / Flickr

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The prison even has a childcare centre within its walls. Photograph courtesy of Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

New inmates are required to purchase their own cells, to which they are given the key. A price in US dollars is negotiated with an outgoing inmate. The pair sign a sale-purchase agreement, and afterwards an official property title deed is drawn up. 

No two cells are the same. Prices vary according to size, quality and location. The eight sections, which resemble small suburbs, are ranked according to a hotel-style rating system. In the five-star section, wealthy inmates live in spacious, carpeted, furnished rooms, complete with en-suite bathrooms and views over the city. These ‘cells’ resemble luxury apartments and purchase prices can go as high as US$30,000. By contrast, in the filthy one-star sections, as many as five men are crammed in tiny hovels known as ‘coffins’, which cost only a few hundred dollars. 

The extremely wealthy can even renovate their cells, or construct new ones. Bolivia’s most infamous trafficker, known as ‘Red Beard’, who’d been caught with 4.2 tonnes of cocaine in his own aeroplane, wasn’t happy with the size of his cell. So he built a second storey. He also had cable television installed. A politician I met in the upscale section had a formidable library and a jacuzzi in his rooms. 

‘San Pedro inmates run the prison themselves, functioning as an independent community. They have developed rules, a political system and punishments, as well as a highly sophisticated economy’

If you can’t afford to buy, you can rent. In fact, wealthy inmates often buy up ‘properties’ as investments. Finally, at the end of their ‘stay’, they are presented with a bill for the water and electricity they’ve consumed. This might all seem like a fun game of Monopoly, if it weren’t so deadly serious. At 3,600 metres above sea level, La Paz is one of the highest cities in the world. At night, temperatures drop rapidly and you don’t want to be without a cell. This has led many prisoners to die of exposure.

It’s not just accommodation that inmates have to pay for, but also food, clothing and medicine. As a result, they need jobs to survive. These range from running errands, shining shoes, selling phone cards, washing laundry, waiting tables, and running small businesses, to selling handicrafts. 

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Cells are as cramped or as spacious as personal finances allow. No two cells are the same. Photograph courtesy of Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

As a concession to the inmates’ hardship, the government allows their wives, girlfriends and children (some 2,103 children according to a recent government survey) to live inside the prison. Each morning, swarms of children head out in uniform with backpacks to attend school. In the afternoon, they return to their fathers’ cells to do homework. The government claims this is a progressive policy, as inmates don’t lose contact with society or family. Having to work and being responsible for their own behaviour assists rehabilitation, making them less likely to later re-offend. San Pedro is not unique in this respect. Prisons throughout Bolivia and in some other South American countries allow family to live inside. Obrajes women-only prison, in southern La Paz, is a successful model with strong discipline, little violence and strong cohesion between inmates. 

But what about the children and women? They’ve committed no wrong, and yet live similarly to convicted criminals. Aren’t they in danger? Most prisoners treat the women and children with great respect. If a child walks past when two inmates are fighting, bystanders will call out ‘Ñiño!’ (meaning ‘child’). The fighters will stop and hold their positions until the child has passed, at which point they resume fighting.

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Inmates and their children at San Pedro enjoy a football match. Photograph by Rusty Young

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Those in the more expensive cells have their own cable television, while the poorer inmates have to settle for communal timetabled viewings. Photograph courtesy of Toby Binder / Anzenberger / Eyevine

Nevertheless, shielding children doesn’t eliminate all dangers. Drug use is rife in San Pedro. Bolivia is the world’s third biggest cocaine producer and most inmates are in for drug offences – smuggling, trafficking and manufacturing. Once inside, they have the skills and contacts to continue their trade. As a result, the cocaine is cheaper and purer inside the prison than anywhere in the world. Hundreds of inmates are addicted to cocaine, which makes them violent and unpredictable. Stabbings are a frequent occurrence. Such an environment is no place for a child to grow up, so the Don’t Imprison My Childhood campaign sought to have the children removed. But the prisoners revolted and the children were allowed to stay.

‘On and off over the past two decades, enterprising English-speaking inmates have conducted tours of San Pedro. Tourists can buy handicrafts, sample the local cuisine at restaurants, or simply chat with inmates and their families’

It’s a complex dilemma with no easy solution. On the one hand, the prisoners are happy, the families stay together, and these children might be far worse off outside, perhaps living on the streets. On the other hand, they’re mingling with drug addicts and murderers. Or, worryingly, sex offenders, for which prisoners have developed their own protective system. Anyone suspected of sex offences is beaten, whipped with electrical cable, electrocuted, stomped on and then drowned in la piscina – a 2-metre-deep ‘swimming pool’. Rough justice indeed. But the alternative is equally deplorable. 

In a shocking case that garnered world headlines in 2013, a 12-year-old girl in San Pedro was found to be pregnant. Authorities believed she’d been systematically raped over a five-year period by her father and uncle. The Prisons Minister promised to close San Pedro within three months.

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Prisoners experience a much more convivial atmosphere at San Pedro than would generally be the case. Photograph courtesy of Toby Binder / Anzenberger / Eyevine

Women and children are not the only unusual visitors. On and off over the past two decades, enterprising English-speaking inmates have conducted tours of San Pedro. They were started by Thomas McFadden, an African-born British inmate caught attempting to smuggle 5 kilograms of cocaine through the airport. Penniless and unable to speak Spanish, McFadden stumbled on the lucrative idea of charging backpackers to visit him. Tourists would pay US$5, then leave their passports with guards as collateral, before wandering the labyrinth of corridors for an hour, accompanied by McFadden and his bodyguards. 

Tourists could buy handicrafts, sample the local cuisine at restaurants, or simply chat with inmates and their families. They often brought in much-needed clothing, food and medical supplies for the poorer inmates. For an additional $5, braver tourists could even stay overnight. 

‘With every newspaper scandal locals shake their heads and roll their eyes, in a mixture of disgust and bemusement. To them, San Pedro is like a tragic soap opera, stuck on repeat, unlikely to ever change. And they’re probably right’

Many backpackers commented that San Pedro was cheaper than a hostel. Add in alcohol and pure cocaine, and McFadden’s parties could last for days. The year’s rowdiest celebration is the infamous Prisoners’ Day Party, which happens every September. Each section hires a rock group that belts out Bolivian ballads, while pretty girls in skimpy clothes parade around on stages.

At the peak of McFadden’s tours, up to 70 tourists would venture through per day. San Pedro became so popular that it was described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as ‘the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction’. The government denied that these ‘illegal tours’ occurred. However, following media exposés and tourist videos on the internet, they had to officially ban the tours and crack down on the drugs and corruption. 

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Everyday life in the prison, described by Lonely Planet as ‘the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction’. Photograph courtesy of Toby Binder / Anzenberger / Eyevine

With every newspaper scandal – cocaine sales, prostitution, prison tourism, murders, police criminality and child rape – locals shake their heads and roll their eyes, in a mixture of disgust and bemusement. To them, San Pedro is like a tragic soap opera, stuck on repeat, unlikely to ever change. And they’re probably right. 

Five years after the young girl’s rape, San Pedro is still open. It’s business as usual. Cocaine is still available. The tours have simply moved outside. Each day in the plaza, hundreds of tourists stop to gawp and take ‘selfies’ in front of the main gates as part of a ‘City Walking Tour’. From time to time, a few lucky ones manage to slip past the corrupt guards and spend a few hours, or even a night, inside.

Leading image: A city within a city. Lives within the walls are not vastly different from those in the outside world. Image courtesy of Wikimapia. 

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.