It used to be one of South America’s most fabled tourist attractions. Celebrated as unique in the world, San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, was a prison like no other. Foreign tourists would pay bribes to enter, gawk, shop, dine and even do drugs. Many deemed it better value than the Inca citadel Machu Picchu.
Not any more. A sweeping crackdown has barred tourists from the complex, replaced corrupt guards and challenged bizarre practices which had become the stuff of lore. If Bolivia’s government has its way, San Pedro’s unique days are over.
“This was a very original prison, very different from the others,” said Juan Gonzalez, 39, a convicted thief, sitting on a bed in his cell. “It was like a little village. It wasn’t so bad. Now all that’s at risk.”
Out in the main courtyard other inmates huddled in small groups, nervous and resentful. They used to run mini-restaurants and craft stalls but now, with the tourists ban, business had collapsed. On the outside disappointed tourists rued missing the heyday. Guards in green uniforms had rebuffed them but still they lingered.
“What a bummer. This was one of Bolivia’s main attractions,” said a British couple, Matt and Linda. “Well, at least let’s take a picture at the gate.”
San Pedro’s fame is set to reach a wider audience with a new film produced by Brad Pitt and starring Don Cheadle. Based on the book Marching Powder, about the four-year incarceration of a British drug mule, Thomas McFadden, it details how tourists would pay for tours, overnight stays and cocaine-fuelled parties.
After years of turning a blind eye the authorities were forced to act after tourists uploaded a video of a visit on YouTube in February. Local TV picked up on the story and interviewed foreigners emerging from the jail. It turned into a circus.
Embarrassed, the government vowed to change San Pedro. “The most alarming thing was the tourists,” said Jorge Lopez, head of the prison service. “We are now constantly rotating the guards so they do not develop a close relationship with inmates so we can cut off corruption.”
In addition to expelling tourists the authorities have banned other traits of San Pedro such as inmates renting, buying and selling their own cells, a real estate market which had its own bubbles and slumps. Office workers can no longer pop in for a cheap lunch in restaurants which, unencumbered by taxes and utility bills, undercut outside rivals.
What most upsets inmates is a threat to expel their families. Hundreds of wives and children voluntarily live in the prison – with freedom to come and go during the day – for want of accommodation and jobs in the impoverished capital.
“We are very happy here. We have work, we have a home. Outside there is nothing,” said Laura Gonzalez, Juan’s wifeof the convicted thief Juan, traipsing back in through the gates. She cooks in a restaurant and her husband, who is serving three years, works as an amateur dentist. They share their cell, cluttered with clothes and DVDs, with two children and a cat, Felix.
Latin American prisons tend to be overcrowded, grim and violent, with riots and beheadings common. San Pedro, which is divided into eight sections ranging from slum-like to plush, is dangerous at night but relatively safe in the day. “Having women and children here helps keep the men calm,” said one guard.
Cocaine, crack and marijuana are openly consumed – a recent documentary showed a prisoner snorting a line off a copy of the book Marching Powder – but the cocaine-processing laboratories have reportedly closed.
The arrival of high-profile prisoners tend to coincide with crackdowns. Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal, spent some months here in 1983 before extradition to France. More recent arrivals include Leopoldo Fernández, a provincial governor allegedly implicated in the murder of indigenous peasants, and Santos Ramirez, charged with corruption while heading the state energy company.
The fate of San Pedro’s businesses – hairdressers, grocery shops, pool halls – is uncertain. Nor is it clear what will happen to the football league in which the eight sections each field a team, with players bought and sold on a transfer market.
The governor, Jose Cabrera, recently said: “The prisoners have to understand that this is a penitentiary.”