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Published: October 14th 2008
The Book Marching Powder
This is the book that lead us to the illegal tour of the prison
Why would you choose to illegally bribe your way into South Americas most notorious prison? Would you like to talk with some of the worlds most famous drug traffickers? Perhaps you want to know how they got caught? You could ask about the secrets of drug smuggling? Or maybe you just want to see the conditions for yourself? Why not have a game of pool, play video games or watch the footie. For a little extra you could see general population, or even better the cocaine manufacturing plant. Maybe you would like to order a prostitute and stay the night while snorting a few grams of un-cut cocaine? Sod it, why not buy a few kilo´s and order your next shipment home to the UK. The boundaries are non-existent within San Pedro Prison, but its all a load of surf-boards to me!!
While heading North through Bolivia I overheard a couple of travellers talking about their failed attempt at illegally visiting a Bolivian Prison. I couldn't help but interrupt their conversation to find out how it was at all possible. The idea of visiting a South American prison strangely appealed. I knew it would be foolish and dangerous but I
Guard At Side Entrance
Low profile side entrance to prison
couldn't help myself knowing that it would provide me with my most captivating story yet.
I never realised it would be the most surreal experience of my life!
When I first arrived in La Paz I began to ask around about San Pedro Prison. The youth hostel denied all knowledge of any prison tours and warned me that any attempt to visit the prison is illegal. There was no tours advertised in any of the travel agents and most bar staff would try to avoid any conversation regarding the prison. I instantly got the feeling that more careful research was required.
I had already heard about the book Marching Powder and read the fascinating details in which the author (Rusty Young) managed to bribe the guards and gain access to the prison. I had also heard rumours that other travellers had successfully managed to bribe their way in, although the exact details were still unclear.
I was eventually pointed in the direction of a small back street gringo bar called Olivers Travels. There I met a gringo who gave me the name and mobile phone number of a South African inmate. Apparently there is no official
Front Of Prison
High level security at front of prison
tour and you need to know the inmate you wish to visit. I was warned to only approach the side entrance of the prison. Any attempt at bribing the guards near the main entrance would result in a serious beating, or worse! The whole thing began to sound very scary.
As I approached the prison I felt slightly apprehensive, I was about to try and bribe my way into one of the most notorious prisons in South America. Armed with three friends, the name of an inmate and 300 bolivianos we approached the side entrance. We had already been told to take nothing except the cash we were willing pay. That meant no cameras, mobile phones, notepads or recording equipment. Any attempt at entering the prison with these items would be confiscated by the guards - indefinitely!
As we approached the side entrance I could see the inmates playing football through the large steel gates. Once within the gates, the atmosphere felt tense and everyone went quiet as the menacing guards looked us up and down. An official looking African guard dressed in a smart designer suit (Kennith) asked us our business. I bravely said we were here
When Gates Are Closed
You would never guess this is the side entrance to one of the most nutorious prisons in South America
to see my contact.
Kennith immediately responded. "No - its not possible, tours are illegal!" He said it in such an authoritative way that it scared the shit out of me". He then repeated it again as if we were stupid! We all immediately backed way from the gate in fear of any repercussions. Ryan was a little more stern. We stood at the side of the prison wall and waited. We waited and waited while the guards watched us closely from the corner of their eye as if they were trying to evaluate us. Kennith hung around as if he was protecting the gate. When I got fed up I headed for the public telephone to ring my contact while Lisa tried sweetening Kennith up with an ice cream, suddenly Kennith unexpectedly returned to the group......
Your contact "is ready to see you now". What a turn around, it was all very strange. I am still unsure if he granted us entry because I was about to telephone my contact or if it was because Lisa decided to share an ice cream at the gate with Kennith, either way we managed to get inside the large un-inviting
Image I stole off internet that reminds me of what I witnessed in the prison
gates of the prison.
As we passed through the gates, the prison guards checked that we had no recording equipment. They made us fill out a visitors form that required our name and passport number. After filling out some false details I was given a visitor stamp on the back of my hand and asked to wait for a few moments while my contact was ordered to the gate. While waiting, various prisoners shouted through the gates at us. It was very intimidating. I was Shiting bricks while wondering what the hell was going to happen next!
Eventually my contact turned up. All I knew about him was that he is South African. Luckily I know the South African accent very well. As soon as he spoke I knew we had the right person. He got the guards to open the gate and we all entered the courtyard. The prisoners playing football stopped for a while and took the chance to check out Lisa. For all I know they may have been checking out me, Ryan and Ben too!
My contact walked with a kind of authority only a prison guard does. He marched us across the
Prison Watch Tower
Occasionally you would witness a sniper sitting in the watch tower
courtyard and down a narrow corridor. We climbed some old rusty ladders while trying not to hit our head on the low hanging ceiling. We walked through another dusty corridor and into his cell. There we met a prison aid worker who sat down beside us. The first thing she said was "Do you have the money for the trust"... "The trust I replied?".... "Yes - the money to pay off the police and guards". When I said yes, we spent some time negotiating a price before she took my name and told me I was responsible for ensuring everyone pays at the end of the tour!
She then asked "What do you want to know?". Everyone went quiet. I had been so absorbed in the attempt to get into the prison, I hadn't actually thought about my reasons for visiting never mind the questions I wanted to ask. Everyone glanced over towards me. Most of my traveller friends know me well enough by now. Luckily I managed to pull the first question out of my arse cutting the tense atmosphere with a knife! "How did" my contact "get caught?". She did the talking, my contact stood there quiet
The Streets Outside The Prison
Police keep watch over surrounding area .. I was told to stop taking photos!!
listening to our questions while he occasionally answered his mobile phone. I looked on in amazement while partially listening to the inmate discuss shipments of cocaine on his mobile. Eventually he put down the phone and joined in the conversation.
My contact explained how the wing of the prison we were visiting was for foreigners and wealthy Bolivian inmates. He explained that each room within the prison is classed as real-estate. He explained that each prisoner buys a room for the duration of their stay. The price ranges between $1,000USD to $25,000USD. If a prisoner can not afford a room or misbehaves while in prison they are put into general population. He explained that a foreigner in general population will last 2 days before being murdered, only 1 day if they don't speak Spanish! He then allowed us to peep through a hole in the wall at general population. It looked very scary indeed!
He explained that all of the prisoners have private rooms and their families are welcome to come and go as they please. For a small bribe the prisoners are allowed to have their families or prostitutes stay the night. They are allowed to have
Hall Way Inside San Pedro Prison
Photo stolen off internet. I was not allowed to take camera inside prison
mobiles, Cable TV, DVD players and games. They have a gym, courtyard, pool room, church and educational classes. Basically they have all the freedoms that are available on the outside without the freedom of being on the outside. This is not how I imagined a Bolivian prison to be!
He explained that there are 15 foreign prisoners in San Pedro Prison and all of them are in for drug trafficking. He described in detail that prisoners manufacture the finest un-cut cocaine in the world from the production line within the prison walls. He explained that every days work is two days off their sentence. Apparently the prison sells 95% proof cocaine at $2USD per gram. I listened in complete amazement, everything we were being told seemed so ironic and surreal!
As we began feeling comfortable discussing the ins and outs of the drug trade another inmate curiously emerged. He took us from our comfortable cell and marched us back across the courtyard and into a room that can only be described as a penthouse suite. He introduced himself as the cocaine tester. He told us he tests cocaine 24 hours a day 7 days a week as it
Another image stolen off the internet that reminds me of that surreal day in San Pedro Prison
comes off the prison production line. He acknowledged the fact that he is constantly high. He explained that his life was like the movie ´Blow´. He told us how his wife was Penelope Cruz. For some reason he kept going on about how to make a horse drink water? I still have no idea what he was trying to tell us... His brain was completely fried!
As we began to get to know one another, the drug tester told us how his companions used to smuggle drugs into various countries by compressing cocaine into the shape of surf boards and sealing it with chloride to throw off the drug squad dogs. He claims to be able to smuggle un-cut cocaine anywhere in the world, and only last week he had a night club owner from London visit him in prison to arrange a shipment worth $160,000USD at $2USD a gram!
After giving us a high level explanation of the cocaine manufacturing process that takes place within the prison he proceeded to pulled out a large bag of un-cut cocaine. He tipped it out onto the cover of the book Marching Powder and began cutting it into lines using
Lonely Planet Extract
Following gringo trail into prison... remember to take enough cash to bribe the guards!
a straw. He then proceeded to offer it to us free of charge. He told us to try it, apparently never again will we get the chance to try un-cut cocaine. He explained how it would offended both the prisoners and the guards if we did not try it. Apparently this is the primary reason why most travellers find their way into the prison!
Although I tried to explain that I do not take cocaine, I was in no situation to offend anyone in the prison. The others I was with had taken it before and snorted it without a second thought. There was no way I was going to put that shit up my nose! I was given the option to rub a small amount on my gums instead. Within moments my entire mouth had gone numb. I remember touching my face constantly while trying to concentrate on the conversation. The whole experience was insane, I couldn't believe the first time I had ever touched cocaine was in a Bolivian prison cell. The whole situation was so bizarre and surreal. It was completely out of control!
On came the football and out came more Whisky. We spent
Coca Leaves for sale outside of the prison... The stuff cocaine is made from
over 6 hours in the prison talking to the inmates. Some of their stories were surreal. I mentioned about the difficulty of getting into the prison. Apparently Kennith is a former inmate who hangs around at the gates. When he gets the chance, he forces unsuspecting travellers to pay a large bribe and keeps the extras for himself. Apparently they are having serious problems with Kennith.
From memory, these are my notes from visiting the prison......
Stuart is originally from Rhodesia and is in his late fifties. He is an incredibly successful business man who owns property all over the world. He has been smuggling cocaine for twenty one years. He has remained in Prison for seven of those years, but continues to successfully operate his business from behind San Pedro´s walls. He is a degree educated Mechanical Engineer but also trained as a failed South African Jockey. He claims to have lost his job following the end of the apartheid and moved into the smuggling of cocaine with a Nigerian partner.
Stuart has been held without trial for three years. After three years in a Bolivian Prison the government must release an inmate if no trial has been held. It is now two months after his three year intern and he is now waiting to speak to a solicitor. The reason he has never had trial is because he claims only to speak Africans. The Bolivian authorities do not recognise Africans as an international language and can´t afford to pay for a translator to deal with this unique case.
Stuart is an incredibly intelligent business man. He does not take cocaine and only sees the drugs trade as a high profit business. He is no small time smuggler and has been responsible for smuggling hundreds of kilo´s in a single shipment. He is addicted to the challenge of smuggling between countries while exploiting loopholes in the law and weaknesses within international customs and boarders. He has contacts all over the world and only works for himself. He would not answer any of my questions on how many employees he has, nor would he let me know his account balance or the number of passports he holds. On asking these questions he just pored me another whisky and smiled!
Stuart explained the difficulties in laundering drug money. He would often buy property in cash, use off shore bank accounts and place large bets on the (apparently corrupt) south African horse racing. He would use casinos and other forms of gambling to hide the money from big brother!
Stuart explained that before America went to war with Afghanistan it was possible to bribe airline security and conceal cocaine within international passenger airlines. Once the war began, Stuart resorted to smuggling cocaine through the desert between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Apparently it took 3 weeks to carry large shipments of cocaine on several camels. Whenever he could see the Pakistan boarder police (visibility is good in the desert), he would bury the cocaine in the sand and let the camel sit on the spot. The police would only ever check the camel for drugs!
Stuart explained that when he first started smuggling cocaine, he used to soak large shipments of clothes in liquid cocaine, dry it, transport it and then wash it out on reaching its destination. Apparently it was possible to store a kilo of cocaine in one shirt. To maximise profit he would also sell the clothes to warehouses.
Stuart told us many stories of close encounters and heart pounding moments. He explained that on one occasion he was almost caught in Madrid while transporting cocaine in a large shipment of antique furniture. When the sniffer dogs got close to the furniture, he faked a serious illness and the police rushed him through security. Apparently they also carried his suitcase containing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to the awaiting taxi!
Its not always been a simple life for Stuart. He was once held on death row in Pakistan for four years and faced the death penalty (hanging). He managed to get out by writing a letter to the president explaining that he was a Roman Catholic and should not be judged by Muslim law. This prosponed his death sentence until he eventually escaped.
He ended up in San Pedro Prison after being caught three years ago at a Bolivian airport. Apparently his contact had not let the wooden furniture containing massive quantities of cocaine dry properly after soaking it in chloride. We were told that Chloride and Bug Spray throw off the drug dogs scent.
The Aid Worker
Liz ended up in prison because her passport expired. She got a 9 month sentence in a Bolivian prison (Not San Pedro). She now spends her time helping to rehabilitate prisoners. She does not take drugs, but I got the feeling she is also involved in the smuggling game!
The Cocaine Tester
Jaque reminds me of an artist completely messed up on cocaine. He tests cocaine coming off the San Pedro Prison production line twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. He has been in prison for three years and seriously believes his life is like the movie ´blow´. He claims his wife is Penelope Cruz and was once one of the worlds biggest drug traffickers. He explained that he used to make surf boards out of compressed cocaine and ship it all over the world. Apparently he is skilled at mass producing items made out of compressed cocaine, including surf boards, lollipop´s and ornaments.
Jaque speaks 5 different languages (English, Dutch, Africans, Portuguese and Spanish). He has one of the nicest rooms in the prison which can only be described as the penthouse suite. When I met him he had not slept in 2 days and had just had an argument with his girlfriend that had been living in the prison cell with him. He only takes cocaine and does not like alcohol. His brain is completely fried!
Jaque explained that they only produce un-cut cocaine from within San Pedro Prison. To test, you put a small amount on your gums. If it goes numb, its un-cut. If there is a burning sensation it been cut with another substance.
I cant remember the whole process, but from memory it went something like this:-
1. Get shipment of coca leaves bought into the prison by the police
2. Compress leaves by walking on them to get coca juice out
3. Open the roof of the prison to dry the juice creating pure blue cocaine crystals
4. Mix blue crystals with baby gum powder and Glucose creating sweat white powder cocaine
1. Columbia has the best tools for manufacturing cocaine
2. Bolivia has the best natural resources (Coca Leaves)
I don't think it is possible to describe the rooms inmates live in as a prison cells, it was more like someone's bedroom. Each room has 122 channel TV, mirrors, bathroom, stereo and DVD Player
The prison has a Church, Pool Room, Weights Room, Court Yard, Shops and BBQ´s.
Each prisoner buys a room for the duration of their stay ranging from $1,000USD to $25,000USD
Each days work is two days off the inmates sentence
Football tournaments regularly take place within the prison courtyard. Inmates place bets on games ranging up to $10,000USD
There is little violence or disorder in San Pedro Prison. Any breach of conduct will result in the prisoner being put in general population. A foreigner is expected to last no longer than two days in general population before being murdered.
It is possible for the inmates families (including children) to live inside the prison. Their families can come and go as they please.
It is possible to buy one gram of cocaine for twenty Bolivia's ($2USD) from San Pedro Prison
The manufacturing plant is within the walls of San Pedro Prison
The prisoners have mobile phones. They can maintain their personal businesses while ordering Pizza, Whisky and DVD´s
Each of the inmates can order prostitutes whenever they want.
There are 15 foreigners held within San Pedro Prison. All have been imprisoned on mass drug trafficking charges.
General Population includes all crimes from petty theft to murderers. Murderers in general Population do not hesitate in killing one another. It does not matter how many people the kill, they are still in there for life.
- Total number of visitors to date is approximately 5000 people
- CNN has visited. Stuart did not give his story because he wants to maintain a low profile.
- An Irish couple once visited snorting 19 grams of cocaine and 10 bottles of whisky
- One Irish girl went to visit and spent the entire day platting Stuart´s hair!
- A Christian woman went into the prison, spent her time judging Stuart and ended up trying cocaine
- Some travellers go to visit the prison, most go to buy cocaine or gain new smuggling contacts
- All money you pay to enter the prison goes into the trust which bribes the local police and guards.
OTHER TRAVELLERS: Thanks for all the messages. I have been informed it is no longer possible to get into the prison.
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