For years, they have offered bribe-funded tours of San Pedro Prison.
At first, I thought it was a legend, a tale out of school. After researching it and hearing story after story from people who had been, it became clear that it wasn’t. I was excited to visit somewhere that was a unique combination of interesting and vaguely dangerous.
I had the option to go on Monday, but I delayed until Tuesday, to allow for questions from friends and readers.
Tuesday morning, I started talking to the guy at the hostel to confirm what I already knew about going in. But, the employee told me that I couldn’t go to San Pedro. Why not?
Apparently, he claimed, there was a story on the TV news that morning about the whole situation, so they weren’t going to be doing the tours. At least for the next day or two.
This all seemed quite odd. A tour that has been going on for years, seemingly in the public eye, all of a sudden shut down? Whenever one hears something along those lines while traveling, it causes suspicion. Especially since I know that there are people that don’t approve of such tours, as they just strengthen the corruption, so it wouldn’t be within the realm of disbelief to think that someone would lie to dissuade me from going.
My next task was to check to see if there was any veracity to his claim.
I looked online. Nothing to be found in the latest news. I changed my focus to my future bus travels. While searching, I stumbled upon an article about a couple that was kidnapped and murdered in Bolivia two years ago. This scared me a bit, so I went to my hostel bed and stayed there for a few hours, watching Huff.
Convincing myself that this was the coward’s way out, I left my wallet and only took enough money to get me into the prison (based on the bribe amounts that I’d previously heard, between 250 and 300 Bolivianos, or up to $40 USD or so), my camera, and copies of my two passports.
Off I went to Coca Travels, a tour agency that I knew did San Pedro tours (not all of them do, as it’s illegal).
[Switch to present tense]
At Coca Travels, I ask the guy how I do a tour of San Pedro. He seems freaked out and says that they don’t do such things. I ask him if it’s true that there was a story on the news that morning. After we talk a bit, he seems to calm down, realizing that I’m not on a sting operation.
Not only was there a story on the TV news, it’s also in the newspaper that he has right there.
The guy says that they won’t be doing tours today, at least. Probably not tomorrow, either. Same thing that the hostel guy said. But the guy from Coca Travels makes no indication that it would not be possible to do a tour later on. I ask him “Once the light is off?” He agrees.
He offers to sell me Marching Powder, one of the books that details life inside San Pedro. I decline.
Off I go to buy said newspaper.
I look at the story. The focus is on the fact that tourists that take the tour get offered drugs in the end. In fact, that’s the headline. “Foreigners take tours of prison and buy drugs.” Ah. That’s another thing about San Pedro. They manufacture cocaine inside.
At this point, I’m highly curious as to how well-known this whole thing is. If it was common knowledge, why is it such a big news thing now? And is there any chance that they’ll actually stop it?
I scope for people on the street to ask about it. No one seems particularly enticing, so I stop at the tourist office to ask them.
I ask the tourist office guy if this whole story is a surprise to normal Bolivians. He says yes. That he didn’t even know about it before the story broke. Apparently, tourists would ask him how they could go on a tour of San Pedro and he told them outright that they couldn’t. He says that most Bolivians didn’t know what was happening until they turned on the TV or opened their newspaper. (Later, when I talk to other hostel employees that have lived in La Paz their whole lives, they say that they never heard of the prison tour until they started working in the tourism industry. One tells me that on the tour you can buy a T-shirt that says “I’m a prisoner” in Spanish.)
Next, I ask a group of city police officers. They agree. A total surprise.
I know that the next person I need to ask is a national police officer (the same sort of people that also guard the prison). They are stationed at every bank, so I figure that’s a safe bet. No banks around in my path. I stumble upon a free art exhibition, so I go in. There’s a national police officer serving as a guard.
I think that he’ll be reticent to talk about it, but he just spills and spills.
- He agrees with everyone else that no one knew. He claims that not even the police outside of the prison knew.
- They have the same problem in Santa Cruz (the city that I tried to fly to, but all the flights were grounded).
- The people in San Pedro are not considered particularly dangerous. “High society” for the most part. Politicians and lawyers and of course, drug dealers with money.
- The government ‘forgot’ about San Pedro.
- There are three high-security prisons that the government takes seriously, with real guards and guns and the like.
I ask him what will happen now. He says that the boss will be gone and now things will change. He was the only one that professed such an idea.