Saturday, June 9, 2012

How Governments Built a Cocaine Factory

An inmate in San Pedro Prison with his wife and daughters, who shared his cell.
(All photos by Mike Ceaser) 
Create a government-owned cocaine factory in the middle of your capital city? Who in their right mind would do such a thing? But Bolivia has, in colaboration with the U.S. government, as described in Marching Powder, which I'm reading now.

A stairway in the crowded San Pedro prison. 
A dozen years ago when I lived in La Paz, Bolivia, (and when Marching Powder's author Rusty Young was there) San Pedro prison's cocaine and counterfeit money factories were already notorious.

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.
With a corrupt and powerless prison administration, experience in the illegal drug economy and almost no food or other supplied from the government, the prisoners made the logical move into manufacturing a product with a guaranteed market: addictive drugs. What else would you expect?

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. 
Whenever something's prohibited, black markets appear. And so San Pedro is the predictable result when unrealistic and unenforceable drug prohibitions meet a poor and thoroughly corrupt society like Bolivia's.

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.
In Paraguay I interviewed several young women imprisoned for smuggling marijuana across the border into Brazil. I'll never forget one, in her early 20s, and just beginning a 15-year prison term which would ruin what was left of her youth. She told me that she'd come from a very poor family, in which everybody slept on the floor of a single room.

"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.
In Caracas, Venezuela I accompanied a group of university health workers into one of the city's overcrowded prisons. I don't recall its name, so it may be one of those which have exploded into violence in the last few years. It was nightmarish. The roughest, most violent inmates, who had a fued with other prisoners and with the guards, had barricaded themselves into the upper floors of the main cellblock. They didn't let in outsiders, accepted food only from relatives and tossed their body wastes out the windows. When they were bored or angry, prison staff told us, the toughs picked up their guns and took potshots at inmates on the patio below.
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

1 comment:

Colin said...

San Pedro isn't far from the norm, from what I've heard of Latin American prisons. I have a friend who was locked up in La Modelo in the 80s, he also had to buy his cell. And inside was his only time in Colombia when he never went without drugs. Prisoners run the prison, guards just watch the gates, etc.

Venezuela is becoming the new home to crazy prisons. See Margarita Island, Venezuela's Top Party Prison, or Venezuela's Gladiators.