|An inmate in San Pedro Prison with his wife and daughters, who shared his cell.|
(All photos by Mike Ceaser)
|A stairway in the crowded San Pedro prison.|
Many, probably the overwhelming majority, of San Pedro's inmates were there for non-violent drug crimes, such as smuggling or growing coca bushes on their land.
San Pedro is a bizarre, inside-out place in the middle of La Paz, where prisoners pay to be imprisoned and have the keys to their own cells, where tourists visit and where the drugs are smuggled not in, but out. If you don't believe me, then read Marching Powder or visit La Paz yourself.
|Protesters, many of them coca leaf growers, protest in Cochabamba, Bolivia against erradication programs and other issues. Many of those in San Pedro prison were very poor people who could afford neither lawyers nor bribes.|
Thomas McFadden, the English drug smuggler who is Marching Powder's protagonist, even calls San Pedro a 'cocaine university.' From the security of the prison, using up-to-date technology and with the collaboration of corrupt staff, McFadden coordinated cocaine shipments to Europe. That was probably not what the drug warriors had in mind when they passed Bolivia's harsh Ley 1008 anti-drug law.
|A protesters' fire.|
I've visited prisons in Bolivia and two other South American countries, and each had its own kind of tragedy.
|A Bolivian campesino, whose coca |
field had just been erradicated.
"The only ways I could help my family were by smuggling drugs or by prostitution," she recalled, sobbing, "and I wasn't willing to become a prostitute."
A wealthy woman hired her as a 'mule,' to ferry sacks of Paraguayan weed into Brazil. But on her third run she got caught. Altho she'd already been in prison for several years, she said that her family was too poor to visit her - and that she didn't even think they knew where she was. The rich woman who'd hired this expendable young girl? She was still living comfortably outside, most likely with the authorities on her payroll.
|A woman handles a sack of coca |
leaves in a legal coca leaf market.
|Women weigh sacks of coca leaves in a legal coca market.|
A Caracas acquaintance of mine had been imprisoned during the 1990s, I believe in this same prison. There, he was involved in a prison riot. Soldiers were called in. Panicking, the soldiers fired on a crowd of unarmed prisoners in the prison patio, killing dozens. My acquaintance said he survived by burying himself amongst the dead.
Whether government-owned cocaine factories, cemeteries for the living, or criminal fortresses, these prisons are iron and concrete tragedies.
Is the War on Drugs the only reason why these prisons are so corrupt and filled with tragedy? Certainly, not, but it makes things much, much worse.
Related post: Expat Anecdotes
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours