Those who have read ‘Marching Powder’, the tell-all book about Bolivia’s most notorious penitentiary in La Paz, know just how corrupt and incredibly insane the way of life is here.
Behind the once-convent concrete walls, just two streets away from La Paz’s popular and central Plaza San Francisco lies the most infamous jailhouse we’ve ever heard of. Even more so than Pablo Escobar’s scandalous ‘La Catedral’.
Passing the open gates, surveilled by a mere six or so prison guards (there are no guards inside!) is a fully functioning society, one where prisoners run the show.
Since the police in Bolivia earn very little, those without rank make only $150 per month, bribery is acceptable and corruption is normal. Making it far too easy for the inmates to pay their way to an easy and carefree life.
Sure, we all know that such immoral actions happen across the world, decent salaries excluded. But what you may not know is that here, in San Pedro, the unscrupulous cops are all part of the illegal activities that take place both in and outside the enclosure.
What you may not know is that not all of its residents are criminals.
There are no ‘Orange Is the New Black’ jumpsuits, locked cells, minimal meals, lights out, or yard time. Instead, what you’ll find are a number of communities, each belonging to their own level in the hierarchy.
Each “district” is equipped with amenities such as a courtyard, restaurants, shops, cafes, barbers, you name it. This system has created jobs for these criminals, the majority of them owning their own businesses. An important factor considering the government only finances the basic food necessities. These convicts need an income to survive, and together, they do.
Like any country and county, there is an electoral system where inmates vote for leaders who promise to bring prosperity and even more comfort to their days. And just like the normal society we all know to live in, everyone kicks up taxes to its leader in return for such a life. These governors also control any crimes committed within, a stabbing being the usual punishment.
Originally built as a monastery, to only hold up to 600 people, today it holds over 3,000. With a divided class, depending on wealth, each criminal must pay their way including renting their own cell, or better yet, apartment. These convicts live with their families, with an estimated 145 children, who have been born and raised behind its walls, currently residing there to this day.
The wealthier prisoners own luxury apartments, some fitted with jacuzzis and luxurious items that an average hard-working, law-abiding individual could never afford. With money to burn, they can pay $100 to the guards in exchange for a 24-hour release and an escort out and around the city. These affluent inmates live in the likes of Posta, one of three ‘upper class’ zones, separated from the rest with its own side entrance door. The lower-class and drug-addicted inmates cannot afford such a lavish life and therefore live in more cell-like conditions, or on the “streets” within the prison.
Income is generated via the internal cocaine lab, something that every citizen, government body and police are aware of.
Every morning, kids line up and are escorted to their schools by the prison guards. Some even attend private schools, and the majority help smuggle the cocaine out, so the WAGS and family members can then sell it from the nearby kiosks.
Directly facing the jailhouse is the San Pedro Plaza, it was here we met and spent an afternoon with Crazy Dave. An American ex-convict who served 14 years in San Pedro, after being caught trying to smuggle 2.5kilos of cocaine into the US.
“That day, the guy offered me heaven. And I got hell instead” he tells us as we sit under a bandstand, avoiding the drizzly rain.
Crazy Dave was once like you or I. Washington born and raised, his dream of becoming a rockstar was set aside as he worked multiple jobs to support his wife and two kids. And his love for cocaine.
His whole world was soon shattered when he discovered his wife fell pregnant with their local drug-dealing delivery boy. An affair and discovery that drove him into the firm grip of the addictive drug, and eventually onto the streets.
So when a New York mobster offered him $30,000 to relocate to Bolivia, to learn the language, adapt as a local and act as a man on the ground, he boarded the next flight he could. Despite the fact that he thought Bolivia was in Africa. Oh, Dave.
A theatrical storyteller, wearing dirt-ridden, rolled-up jeans and a torn Atlanta Falcons football jersey, he acted out the multiple character roles with such passion, distinction and precision. The black rag, tied as a bandana to protect his hairless head, bounced as he physically reenacted his life story.
His darkened stick-thin arms, covered in faded tattoos, slammed the floor. He became angry. Natives smirked as they watched the local madman tell two white, Irish tourists how he was in fact set up as a decoy, deemed to be caught, while a larger payload passed through customs.
He was immediately sent to San Pedro, not exactly the ideal penitentiary for an immigrant, and an American. His first year was filled with abuse and beatings until one day, the wealthy prisoners decided that his English skills would come in handy.
A passing guard, on his way towards the prison, interrupts us. He warns us away from Crazy Dave confirming he is a convict. ‘So are you’ we thought boldly, sticking up for our new friend. We ignored his hypocrisy, and laughed as Dave exclaimed “It’s because I can’t and won’t pay him.”
While serving his sentence, at first Dave became the kids’ English teacher, receiving 6 grams of coke per day in payment for his classes. He then moved on to the cocaine lab, where he worked endlessly, crushing coca leaves by foot, and curating the perfectly pure substance.
Eventually, alongside Marching Powder’s protagonist Thomas McFadden, Crazy Dave became a tour guide. Not a job you would expect to ever be possible.
Catering to the thrill-seeking tourists, who not only wanted a quick and cheap snort, but paid $50 to enter the prison for the day, more to stay the night, for the excitement of mixing with inmates, and an insight into the unethical life.
“It’s very simple,” says Dave. “Where on earth do you know, where you can go and pay a big guy like the honcho who’s looking out the window above the entrance, who sits in his heiny all day and counts money, $50 to become a convict for the day. Where in the world can you do this?” he explains, in an attempt to justify the illegal tours.
With a distaste in our mouths, we cannot stomach nor fathom the idea that a tourist would want to contribute to such a dark, immoral, black market. Especially one where kids are involved. While we do understand the inquisitiveness (sure wasn’t that why we landed in the Plaza in the first place?), such irresponsible behaviour can lead to many dangerous situations. And although no tourist was ever harmed, in fact, it was the quite opposite; applauded on arrival, invited to lunch and given gifts, our slightly hypocritical selves felt shame towards our fellow travellers.
“They were happy to be locked up with me,” he says with such pride.
But alas, all “good” things come to an end. And so did the tours, 8 years ago when an upcoming Bolivian journalist, hidden high up in a hotel room overlooking the prison, hoping to catch a glimpse of an imprisoned politician, took footage and photos of the drug-dealing inmates and the coke-snorting tourists.
“Now, why would a Bolivian do that?” asked Dave. A question we felt we could easily answer.
“He wanted to make a name for himself, and he did…but he can’t come back to Bolivia. He’s wanted, not by the cops, but by the mob, which is even worse”. We shook our heads in agreement, secretly commemorating the brave journalist for putting a stop to the atrocious traveller behaviour.
National outrage, increased media attention and governmental pressure, the felons or tourists were not to blame, but the cops themselves. The prison warden was sacked and tensions were high, leading to prison riots, revoked visitor access and over 80 children taken from their fathers. The convicts decided it wasn’t worth jeopardising their cocaine production, and the tours now remain a tale.
After 14 years, Crazy Dave was released and now lives under a bridge near the prison. He’s eager to return to his old life and continues to try to sneak back into San Pedro.
“I can’t even get in. Every time I try, I get past the first gates and think ‘Yes! it’s time for a major relapse'” he admits enthusiastically.
A strange yet understandable hope, considering the Bolivian and American governments refuse to acknowledge his existence. His many attempts have failed, yet he refuses to give up.
Unable to get a job, sign on or return home, he is now a nobody. He wants his life back. He wants his status back. He wants his comforts with prostitute-ridden weekends and cocaine-filled days, surrounded by the friends and felons he’s met over the years.
No inmate wants to leave San Pedro. Why would they? They live better inside. Dave told us that many of its released criminals return frequently, and purposefully. Committing crimes, so that they can return home.
“Within 100 years as a prison, only four escapes have ever been fulfilled” Dave continues our interesting conversation.
Two Americans were imprisoned after a pub brawl led to six unconscious cops. One was left in a state of coma and later died. In 1973, the two Westcoast Hells Angels successfully escaped. Using an 8ftx12ft wooden board, connected from the inner to the outer prison wall. They then scaled down to freedom using a homemade rope. That day they walked on air, never seen again.
In 1985, a German inmate walked straight out the front gates, using a cunning bribery method that tricked and fooled the daytime prison guard. Handing him a bag, he offered $20,000 to turn a blind eye, so the German could walk out alongside those days’ visiting tourists.
Crazy Dave tells us it’s his favourite escape story because nine days later, that same cop was brought into the jail handcuffed. He was caught taking a large sum of money home, which turned out to be $20,000 of counterfeit money. That genius German!
When two Peruvians killed a Bolivian, they were sentenced and placed in lockdown in between the outer and inner prison walls. Taking advantage of the adobe-made barrier (bricks made from water, clay and straw) they did it Shawshank Redemption style and dug their way free.
Celebrating their great escape in a bar located on the Peru/Bolivia border, it wasn’t long before they were found.
The final and more recent escape was a Bolivian, the only Bolivian with a need to leave. The reason? He was a convicted paedophile. Hated so much, that the regular abuse meant life was simply not worth living in San Pedro. This young, native dwarf, and his crafty mother, came up with the perfect getaway plan.
One day, while visiting her son, she brought with her a school uniform. Stolen from the school opposite the Plaza San Pedro. At 7:30 a.m., as the kids all lined up, ready to be escorted to class, the Bolivian, wearing a cap and hidden within a crowd of 145 children, walked free. The police are still currently searching for him.
The above escapes encouraged the building of four lookout towers. Ones that were occupied for seven months, before being abandoned and never used again.
We spent an hour with Dave, whose storytelling had us hanging on his every word. A charming and highly intelligent man, but we still cannot fathom what we heard and witnessed that day in Plaza San Pedro.
Saying a sad farewell to our crazy friend, we handed him 20 Bolivianos (€2.50) for his time, with the hope he wouldn’t snort it. Although, he does claim to be clean for a number of years now. Something we’re not entirely sure is true.
Coffees in hand, pumped with adrenaline and shocked to the core, we sat on a bench directly outside the opened prison gates.
Here we spent the next hour observing the comings and goings. The two guards accepted a bottle of coke from an uninformed man as he walked into the premises. A further three men walked out, carrying a large sound system and a BBQ. Children returned home from school, and women strolled in with bags of shopping in hand. The large footfall made it even more surreal.
Like an entrance to a shopping centre, our eyes wandered as we watched the many men, women and children come back from their day’s outings, back to their lives and their families. Back to their haven, and the only place they know as home.
Back to the walled world. A world that should not exist.
After our day with Dave, we took to the internet to research more into the notorious SPP.
Heartbroken and disgusted, we discovered that in 2013, there were allegations that a 12-year-old girl fell pregnant, after repeated sexual abuse by her imprisoned father.
The government has since announced San Pedro’s impending closure. Although five years later it still stands strong, there is a new facility being built outside of La Paz city, with speculation that the old prison will be turned into a museum/tourist attraction, ironically.
Dave asked us to mention that you too can hear his story first-hand, by visiting Plaza San Pedro between 12 pm and 1 pm. Every day, he sits here and waits with hope that he can share his tales.
What we can only describe as a ‘Free Talking Tour’, we highly recommend front row seats to ‘The Dave Show’ and ensure you will not be disappointed with what he has to say.
Donations are greatly accepted, however, maybe offering to buy him lunch or any goods could be a nice alternative. As we mentioned, we are not sure if he is still using cocaine. He claims he isn’t. With no visual inclination, although he appeared hyper and erratic, he was certainly not high.
We gave him 20B (€2.50), a small sum to us that can stretch far for him, once he buys food!
As Crazy Dave so bluntly put it “I should have been in that book [Marching Powder], I should have written that book, and I should be in the movie that Brad Pitt has coming out.”
You stay crazy, Crazy Dave!