San Pedro prison: a very strange tourist attraction

The notorious Bolivian jail has no bars on the windows, and money can buy you absolutely anything – including a guided tour

La Paz's Plaza de San Pedro looks like any other city plaza in South America. A large church looms over the tree-lined courtyard, there are a few shops and restaurants, and shoe-shine boys hang around for customers as the traffic bustles by. Yet this is one of the most bizarre tourist attractions in the world.

The eastern side of the plaza is dominated by a monolithic walled compound that runs the length of the square. In the centre is a large gate, with armed guards and a police van perpetually parked outside. A steady flow of women carrying bundles and children with schoolbags pass through the gates. They are entering the infamous San Pedro prison, where, if you know the right people (or, to be more precise, the wrong ones), you can take a guided tour.

The prison is a former monastery and houses around 1,500 prisoners, 80 per cent of whom are in for drug offences. San Pedro's notoriety was spread by Rusty Young's 2003 book Marching Powder, which tells the story of a British drug trafficker, Thomas McFadden, and his experiences in the prison, as well as describing the rampant corruption inside San Pedro's walls, but also in the Bolivian justice system. McFadden spent four years in San Pedro after he was arrested in 1996 with four kilos of cocaine at La Paz's El Alto airport. A film of the book, starring Don Cheadle and produced by Brad Pitt's company, is set to be released in 2012.

The tours were started by McFadden after he bribed guards to let his Israeli girlfriend in to spend the night. Word spread along the gringo trail, and soon backpackers were queuing up at the gates, money in hand, hoping for an experience of life in a third-world prison, as well as some of the world's cheapest cocaine. Since McFadden's release, other prisoners have taken over the tours, which, at £35 per person, and three tours of 12 people a day, are a lucrative business.

Within minutes of walking on to Plaza de San Pedro, four friends and I are approached by a man asking us if we would like a tour of the prison, lasting two hours, with an English-speaking guide. After being led through the gates, we are taken to a small office, where we each pay our 400 bolivianos, a number is written on our hands, and we are led through a narrow corridor to the main gate and into the prison. A man aged between 45 and 50, with a receding hairline, hook nose and bad teeth steps forward. He wears a scruffy sports jacket, trousers and tattered trainers. "My name is Luis, welcome to San Pedro prison," he says.

He leads us up a staircase, past prisoners on all sides, into an office, where there are two rough-looking prisoners. These are our bodyguards. One is stocky, in his mid to late thirties, has broad shoulders, and wears a football jersey and tracksuit bottoms. The other is dressed in a baggy T-shirt, jeans, and a blue baseball cap turned backwards. A large scar runs from the corner of his mouth halfway to his ear. Both are in for murder.

The tour begins at the prison kitchen. Inside, the head chef is attending to a massive pot of unappetising-looking soup, while prisoners with filthy hands sit on small crates as they cut and peel vegetables. The concrete walls are stained, the ovens and stoves are rusting, and the heat is intense. Luis says people who can afford it don't eat the prison food. They use one of the many restaurants dotted around the prison – small affairs, a single stand or stall, mostly serving fried chicken with chips or rice, some with a plastic table and umbrella and a few chairs outside.

There are eight sections in San Pedro, each with cells of varying comfort. Prisoners can walk freely among the sections. Prisoners are not issued with cells, as they must be purchased. Prices vary according to what section you want. Each has two floors of cells in a large brick building surrounding an open-air concrete courtyard; this has benches and tables with checker boards painted on them. The outside walls are painted a bright colour, such as sky blue or yellow. As you walk through a section, you must dodge running children and duck around clotheslines hanging across the courtyard.

The cell blocks in wealthier sections resemble rectangular apartment blocks or a cheap motel. A winding metal staircase leads you to an upper floor where a wooden walkway takes you along the row of cells, each with a wooden door. The walkway doubles as a balcony for the inmates. The cells in the richer, Posta, section are ensuite, with tiled floors, cable TV, and DVD players.

Cells in the poorer sections are designed for one person, but often house five. The walls and floors are bare concrete, and prisoners lie on stained mattresses. Their occupants attempt to cover up the shabby walls with photographs or tattered posters. Personal belongings such as cups or books rest on rickety bedside tables. The doors are made from corrugated iron; some have small squares cut out for a window.

There are real estate agents operating within the prison and the market for cells acts just like a genuine housing market, with prices fluctuating, depending on the demand. When prisoners buy a cell, they are given the key, and contracts and deeds are signed. Those who cannot afford to do this sleep on the ground in any abandoned area they can find. The cheapest cell will cost around £100, whereas a cell in a nicer section will sell for up to £350. There is a special section of the prison, off-bounds for the tour, which is reserved for high-profile prisoners such as drug barons and corrupt politicians. Cells here are more like actual apartments and can sell for as much as £3,000.

Prisoners can earn money by working in a shop, selling crafts to the tourists or by baking bread and selling it to other prisoners. Others act as couriers, relaying messages from the gates to prisoners for as little as one boliviano a time. The prison is more akin to a Bolivian slum than an actual jail. Apart from the high walls and the main gate, there are no prison bars. The guards only enter to take the morning roll call, or if there is any major violence such as a murder or a riot.

As we walk through the narrow alleyways, tight corridors and crowded courtyards, there are vendors selling fruit and vegetables, shops dealing in soft drinks, sweets, and other items such as toilet paper. Some prisoners sell handicrafts they have made or pictures they've drawn. Each section has an elected leader who is responsible for security, finances, and rules. Most prisoners' families live in the prison with them and every time we pass a group of kids, screams of "gringo, gringo" reverberate around the grounds.

"This is the pool," Luis says as he points to a circular, concrete pool around five metres in diameter containing barely a foot of filthy water. "Sometimes you wake up in the morning to find a body in here. A lot of San Pedro's problems are ended in this pool." Indeed, one of the most disturbing chapters in Marching Powder describes how a group of rapists are brutally beaten to death at the pool by a mob of prisoners. Luis says the violence in San Pedro has subsided a lot since McFadden's time: "A lot of the gangs are gone, so it's not as dangerous as it was. The main problem is when there is a party with alcohol, and then you have trouble. But you just have to make sure you don't start any fights because it's so easy to get a knife in here."

The tour finishes at Luis's favourite place, an open balcony in one of the upper sections that looks out on to the city of La Paz, with the Andes mountains towering behind. "I like to come here and think about the outside world," Luis muses. The prison barber sweeps up hair behind us, as we gaze at La Paz.

There are seven different "tour companies" operating in San Pedro. The money from the tours is spread throughout the prison system, with the authorities and guards taking most of the profits. Tour guides such as Luis take very little of the actual cash. Before leaving the San Pedro, we are asked for a tip. We give 20 bolivianos each. The majority of this will go to Luis's section and be spent on blankets, toys for the children and general upkeep.

Temporary suspension of the tours is a regular occurrence and usually happens when the prisoners riot. It can also occur as a result of there being too much publicity about the tours, as happened in 2009 after a video taken from inside the prison by a tourist appeared on YouTube. It's difficult to see how the tours will last with the attention that a Hollywood movie is likely to bring.

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