Book Travel

Inside La Paz’s notorious San Pedro Prison

Now for our next infamous attraction. The San Pedro prison experience was made famous in the biography of English drug trafficker Thomas McFadden who was incarcerated there. His story was told in Marching Powder which was written by the law graduate Rusty Young, who befriended Thomas in the jail.

Incarcerated may not be the right word as it is an open jail where due to poverty families have no choice but to live with their convicted partners, the inmates can also bribe the guards to let them go on a night out of they wish. The great irony of the story was that Thomas was caught smuggling cocaine and when he was put in solitary confinement he still had balls of cocaine still in his stomach.

He kept on swallowing the coke balls each time they worked their way through his digestive system in the hope that he could sell them to the inmates when got out of his lone cell.

This unsanitary situation proved to be rather futile as when he was free to roam he discovered that the prisoners manufactured their own cocaine and that the product was also the purest in the world. For anyone familiar with Breaking Bad this is Walter White quality gear.

After seeing some coked up backpackers sitting in the prison canteen, I can believe that it is the purest in the world as they were obviously very, very high. We were offered cocaine at the end of the tour but taking cocaine in the prison didn’t have a massive appeal, especially as it was full of men who were potentially dangerous.

Our tour guide cheerfully informed us that our two security guards were murderers which bizarrely meant that they were better qualified to protect us from violent inmates. The situation became more bizarre when Steph offered one of the murderers a cigarette as a goodwill bribe and he turned it down and asked for a sweet instead, which of course made it all the more confusing.

As you will have gathered, you can go on a tour of the prison if you pay a bribe, this is a very lucrative business for the guards and tour guides alike as it seems that every backpacker wants to see the awful cocaine spewing hellhole that is San Pedro prison.

The entry fee was about £20 and you went armed with cigarettes for prison workers and sweets for the armies of kids that in highly unfortunate circumstances are brought up calling the jail their home. Luckily for us the South African women who was the unofficial tourist receptionist on the door had melted her brain with narcotics years earlier and she completely forgot to charge us for the privilege of the San Pedro experience.

It was only a matter of time before a journalist did the obligatory undercover ‘expose’ on the San Pedro tours as with the favela tours despite the jail being an open secret often spoken about by travellers on the circuit. As Marching Powder explains what happens on the inside in vivid detail, it was an odd choice of story and meant that the tour was shut down. As far as I’m aware it hasn’t been reopened since.

Whilst it caused less harm than the favela report that endangered the lives of the tour guides it was much less worthy than other major events that often go unreported internationally.

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