I took a “tour” of Bolivia’s infamous cocaine prison

A shaking hand unclenches to reveal a base cocaine boulder the size and texture of a large summer hailstone retrieved from a muddy gutter. My stupid life flashes before my stupid eyes for the first of two successive times.

He rubs his thumb and forefinger together, mumbles “US dollars” in gritty Spanglish, then pushes the stone towards my face, expecting an offer on his unsolicited merchandise. Only a moron would buy a condemnable amount of cocaine inside the walls of a South American prison?

My fellow backpackers on today’s unofficial visit to San Pedro prison (for men) in the Bolivian capital of La Paz jumped ahead, leaving me stuck in Manic Coke Cook’s cell. His eyes move independently of each other, unappeased by sleep for days; his teeth just serrated, brown debris. Without a doubt, he broke the golden rule of the drug trade: don’t take what you earn.

Unfortunately, my Spanish doesn’t extend to “No, Señor, as robust as your product sounds, I will not buy drugs while I am effectively locked up in this prison today. Muchas Gracias.”

I disengage eye contact(s), walk past him, head down, and fall in an awkward gallop to grab my beefy Bolivian tour guide and his two equally beefy henchmen. Crisis averted and flash of life repressed, subnormality resumes. A few minutes later, a firm finger pecks my shoulder.

“Hey, Steve, look what I got,” my travel companion said. “Only $50!” His fist loosens, revealing the aforementioned illicit rock. Fifty pairs of eyes surreptitiously note his purchase and connect the dots that we are, in fact, together.

Apparently we are “together”, kindred spirits on the South American “Gringo Trail” backpacker, who met on a bus a few days ago (I didn’t even know his last name at the time). We also handed over our passports to the guards as we entered El Penal de San Pedro together. Reading the terror on my trembling, blushing-flecked face, the nameless friend tries to soothe me.

“Don’t worry, if something happens, I’ll pretend not to know you,” he said.

No worries, I’m sure the corrupt judge will understand.

The tour ends 30 excruciating and paranoia-filled minutes later. I stumble back to the front door, feeling doomed to log in rather than log out. Strangely, however, after a mandatory double-take of my photo in the manner of US customs, the guard returns my precious passport and nods to freedom. I jump out the door, with a new appreciation for the rarefied light of La Paz, Nameless Friend after a minute or two later…

How did I get to San Pedro? It all started innocently enough, a handwritten note on a hostel notice board inviting backpackers to “visit an English prisoner in jail”. Young, dumb, and full of, um, bravado, it seemed like a natural, normal progression from my three-month South American odyssey. A journey that began with more conventional experiences, such as a hike in Machu Picchu in Peru and a failed attempt to climb Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

San Pedro may seem oddly familiar to you. You would definitely know this if you were backpacking in South America in the late 1990s. Conversely, you might have read Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail.

The cult book, written by Australian author Rusty Young, tells the story of the prison’s most notorious inmate, English cocaine dealer Thomas McFadden. Young bribed his way to San Pedro, staying for months to learn the story of the man who started the tours. It would have been good to read Marching Powder beforehand, to know that my experience was actually a fairly normal day in this most abnormal place, but the book was published five years after my visit in 1998.

Passing behind the 15-meter stone walls of San Pedro was quite simple at the time. Ask for Thomas at the front gate, give your passport to the guards, then hand $5 US to your prisoner guide, who presumably gave the guards a haircut – who didn’t accompany the tours.

Disconcertingly, I met a burly English-speaking Bolivian prisoner who told us “Thomas doesn’t do the tours anymore” (turns out he just wasn’t that day). He never mentioned Thomas again and remained silent about his own crimes (apparently three-quarters of San Pedro’s inmates are inside for smuggling, producing, or selling one of Bolivia’s biggest exports).

The memory of Manic Coke Cook is seared into my brain, but pretty much everything else about the day feels incredibly surreal two decades later. The fact that the drugs were mass produced wasn’t even the most interesting thing about the dystopian ‘minimum security’ slum prison.

For starters, the only guards I saw were on the perimeter, apparently employed only to stop escapes or quell large-scale riots. Once inside, a hierarchy of prisoners controlled San Pedro; a place that was built to house a few hundred prisoners but which housed several thousand, guess what, when I was there.

Famously, prisoners could buy their place in the best “neighborhoods” of San Pedro. I clearly remember how some cells were significantly more opulent than the hotels and foster families I frequented at the time. Some had decent rugs and furniture, big TVs, bathrooms, and a few even had city views. One prisoner even added an extension to his cell, according to legend. Pitifully basic meals were provided to prisoners, but those with access to cash had a choice of “restaurants” to dine in.

The biggest surprise, however, was who else lived inside the walls of San Pedro: the prisoners’ wives and children. Children with small backpacks went to school outside each morning, returning through the gates in the afternoon. With its own economy, workshops and churches, San Pedro could almost look like an ordinary, if not downtrodden, suburb of La Paz. However, immediately perish any warm and fuzzy thoughts.

Prisoners without money or power endured a particularly miserable existence; forced to sleep in misery on cold concrete, more or less in the open air. La Paz is 3600 meters above sea level, so temperatures drop after dark.

The stories of La Piscina (the swimming pool), a small concrete well in the courtyard, still haunt my dreams. The guide graphically told how pedophiles and rapists would be beaten and drowned there. Survivors could then be forced to live out their sentence in the kitchen. The situation has worsened recently, with reports of the death of a young girl and other crimes against non-prisoners.

Thomas McFadden was released years ago and visits to San Pedro were officially banned after the prison became an international cause celebrated. Although rumors persist that you can still visit if you really want to.

At its peak, hundreds of visitors passed through San Pedro each week, often carrying food, medicine, and prisoner clothing (including my green Hoodoo Gurus t-shirt). Some brave backpackers even reportedly spent the night partying with prisoners – after all, coke was much cheaper to buy inside than outside.

Today, the thought of visiting a convicted drug dealer in a foreign prison seems like a paragon of stupidity, and the memories of that day still make butterflies in my stomach. But looking back, I’m glad I ventured way beyond my comfort zone into the cocaine prison.

San Pedro honed my fight-or-flight response and educated this sheltered suburban boy about the inequalities of a developing society like Bolivia’s and also America’s judgmental “war on drugs.” Yet my inner creepy cat still counts his lucky stars every day that he hasn’t become another flawed character in Marching Powder.

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