Coca, Prison and Death Road.

23 11 2008

On arrival in La Paz, we headed straight to our hostel, The Wild Rover. We made sure to get a registered taxi as we had heard tales about robberies, and worse… Putting our bags in our room, we headed up to the bar to see if we could see any familiar faces. There were none, but we settled ourselves at the bar for our first Bolivian beer. We had travelled to La Paz with Natalie, an American girl we had met on the Salt Flats. She was only 19 yet incredibly outgoing and talkative. She had travelled extensively and had lots of tales. Within minutes she was chatting to a guy at the bar. His name was Simon and he was from London. He had been at the hostel for a while as he was waiting on a new credit card and funds.

We asked him how he had lost his things, and he told us that he had taken a cab straight from the bus station, which had taken a detour on the way to the hostel. It had headed down a back road, where another guy then jumped into the back seat and held a gun to the back of Simon´s head, forcing him down onto the seat. The guy cocked the gun and demanded all his credit cards and pin numbers. Once he had given his details to the man, the driver threw him out, but not without getting his bags out of the boot and throwing them after him…they weren’t completely heartless…!

We had heard the tales about La Paz´s crazy nightlife, and the first night at the Wild Rover Hostel was no different. We however refrained from indulging too heavily as we had booked that day to cycle the next day down… the World´s most dangerous road!
The Yungas road was built by prisoners during Bolivia’s 1932-35 war with Paraguay. For many years it was the only route linking northern Bolivia to the capital. In 1994, 26 vehicles went over the edge – an average of one every two weeks. In 1995, the Inter-American Development Bank listed the road as the most dangerous on earth. The new road circumvents the worst sections but hundreds of vehicles use the old dirt track as a short cut. In each year since it was built, up to 200 people have died on this highway: coca-growers, soldiers – and the odd tourist. In fact, since 1998 over 18 backpackers had died whilst cyling down
It is described by the companies that run the tours as “a spectacular 38-mile ride, descending more than 11,800ft from the Andean mountains into the Amazonian jungle”. This is a pretty apt description, although it’s important to remember why it’s called what it is, and to respect it for those reasons. First thing to remember is to purchase your trip with a respectable company. We had heard about a few, and decided to go with B-Side. They are locally owned, but have thorough safety checks, 2 guides per 5 cyclists and the latest and best equipment. Our bikes had front and back suspension, and most importantly, hydraulic disc breaks!
We left early in the morning and headed up to the top to begin our descent. On the way up we made sure that we chewed coca leaves to relieve ourselves from the side effects of the altitude. The consumption of Coca tea, as well as chewing the leaves, increases the absorption of oxygen in blood, which helps combat altitude sickness, and has a marked digestive and carminative action. We had first been given it during the Salt Flats tour to aid with digestion and to prevent us from suffering from altitude sickness, which had affected many people that we had met. Once at the top we were handed our gloves, safety vest and helmets. We tested our bikes around the car park, and then we were off!
At the end of 2006, after 20 years of construction, a new road (a by-pass) from La Paz to Coroico was opened to public. As a result far less traffic now uses the old road, although you still run the risk of having to overtake the odd lorry or two whilst heading down on your bike. The first 20 km of the ride is on the new asphalted road, yet after this you veer off and begin your descent down the actual ´death road´. You travel at times at around 40kmph, depending on how confident you are. Regularly our guide stopped us and explained what we would come across round the next couple of corners, and how best to tackle it. We headed down in single file, our group of 5, speeding over the gravel surface, trying to ignore the 1000m drop to our left, and dodging the odd waterfall which poured over the path. Twice on the way down I felt my bike slide out, frantically remembering to press my breaks gently, I came to a halt with literally centimetres between me and my untimely demise. It was a truly exhilarating experience!

Before we knew it we were at the bottom, we had been so focused on surviving that we didn’t even notice how long we had been cycling. We each bought a beer and toasted to our survival. After a quick swim and some lunch in a nice hotel, we began the ascent back up. This time we were perched in our support vehicle, with our bikes firmly secured on top. Only once we were free to look around, did we fully appreciate how dangerous the road is. Dotted along the side of the road are numerous crosses and plaques. Most of the road is no wider than 3 metres, and on numerous corners we peered out of the window at the drop below.

The next couple of days we spent exploring La Paz. One of the most interesting things was the markets. You could buy anything you wanted here, especially if you wanted stuff made out of llama. The highlight was the witches market. Here you could buy dried Llama foetuses (if you were so inclined…); these are thrown into the foundations of every new house (99% of the houses!) in order to protect the house and those who live in it. You could also buy dried frogs covered in glitter, the frog powder brings money and a dried frog with a cigarette in its mouth brings even more. Also, another must for your new house is a dead armadillo; armadillo bodies are put on top of doors to prevent burglaries! You could save a fortune on paying for a guard dog or the latest security equipment!

Unfortunately, Claire also fell victim to the first case of a dodgy stomach, so she spent the next few days resting up and rehydrating. Meanwhile I did the opposite… curious as to how good La Paz´s nightlife actually was, I spent the next few nights investigating. The bar at the Wild Rover was great, and there was a good crowd each night. Each night consisted of pool, numerous drinking games, including bar limbo, before heading out to one of the numerous bars. Most of the bars are in Sopacachi, a very pleasant and upmarket suburb. As you cross the bridge to get there you notice the difference in living conditions. Suddenly there are high rise buildings, flash hotels and nice restaurants and bars; a sharp contrast from some areas of the city. The bars are great though, and full of locals and backpackers alike. There was also plenty of live music and cocktails!

Once Claire was better, she experienced the nightlife for herself. We even visited some of La Paz´s nice restaurants; one in particular is worth mentioning. Owned by two guys, one Germany and the other an American; they had combined their passion for food to create an amazing menu, using the best local ingredients and attention to large flavoursome portions. The best thing was the desserts – we had the chocolate volcano, complete with sorbet and fresh raspberries. It was amazing! Also if you get a chance (although we never made it) there is also an amazing Indian restaurant. One of our friends had been in India for over a year, yet he said the curries in La Paz were as good, as definitely hotter!

Everybody in the hostel, and people we had met on the way were talking about San Pedro Prison, La Paz´s infamous penitentiary. The last thing we had to do before leaving La Paz was to visit it for ourselves… I had heard about San Pedro prison before I even left the UK. I was at a wedding shortly before leaving, and a girl I used to know from school was telling me about her brother who had just come back from travelling around South America. She filled me in on all his tales, from Machu Pichu to Patagonia, and then she went on to say that “he was lucky he got home alive”… She told me that her brother had bribed his way into a notorious Bolivian prison, where he was shown around by murderers, then taken into the inner sanctum where he was introduced to an infamous drug baron and his family. Here they were offered cocaine and rum. It was apparently an insult to refuse both, so he had to decide… Now that was a story and a half!

I thought little of what I had heard at the wedding until we were on the Salt Flat tour and met the two Irish girls. They were travelling in the opposite direction, and had just come from La Paz. Swopping stories and tips, as in common place, they mentioned that one of the things they had done in La Paz was a tour of San Pedro prison, and it was a must see when we visited ourselves… It was one thing to hear a tale at a wedding, yet another to actually contemplate handing over hard cash to bribe our way into a third world prison. Yet, the same feeling came over me as when I had first heard the tale at the wedding; curiosity, excitement and a desire to life a little on the edge. Where else in the world would you get an opportunity like it?!

Whilst still not official, tours of San Pedro have been running since around 1996. The prison tours became so famous that they were written up in The Lonely Planet Guide Book as ‘one of the world’s most bizarre tourist attractions.’ The first and most famous tour guide is Thomas McFadden, a British subject charged with trafficking 850grams of cocaine and sentenced to 6 years imprisonment. He spent 4 years in the prison, between 1996 and 2000. Once whilst out for a night in La Paz; having bribed the guards to escort him, he met a girl from Israel. He invited her back for the night to his cell, and the next day, she told some of her friends to visit her. Not before long, backpackers were turning up every week, at the gates of San Pedro, asking for Thomas and to be shown around. Thomas arranged with the guards to receive a large cut, and so began the tours of La Paz´s notorious prison.

Money is everything in Bolivia, and in the prison it is no different. Is you have money you can buy whatever you want, even your freedom. In a corrupt penal system, without money you have no way of bribing the necessary officials, or even getting your case heard. A fair trial is unheard of. Inmates in San Pedro have to pay for everything; from food to accommodation. When the first arrive, they are forced to purchase their own prison cell. A price is negotiated with the previous tenant and an official Sale/Purchase contract is drawn up. The new owner then receives the Ownership Title (Titulo Propietario) provided he has paid the purchase price, the Title transfer fee (20%) and an Administration fee to belong to one of the eight sections. The title is signed and stamped by the Section Delegate and Tax Secretary in order to complete the transaction.

There are eight sections in the prison, each of which has a hotel-style rating. The wealthiest prisoners pay up to US$15,000 to live in the five star sections in apartment-style accommodation, with all the modern conveniences of telephone, television and ensuite bathrooms. This area is usually where the corrupt politicians and officials live. However, as always with places like this, there is another side to the coin. The poorest inmates live in dirty hovels, often with 5 or more inmates crammed into one tiny ´cell´, something much more expected in a third world prison.

In addition to buying their own cells, prisoners must cook their own food, or eat at one of the many restaurants inside the prison, owned and run by the inmates themselves. In order to pay for the food and further support themselves, they also need to earn money. Some set up small businesses inside the prison. Apart from restaurants, there are also barbershops, carpenters, photographers, photocopying services… Some inmates support themselves by making handicrafts and selling them to visiting tourists, and also get people to sell them outside the prison. The lowliest job in the prison is the people who wait behind the main bars to pass messages or fetch inmates when they have a visitor; this people are called taxistas. Everybody needs some form of income though, so every job is important.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, so for many women and children living in prison is sometimes the only way of ensuring their family stays together. During the day, the women and children are free to come and go as they please. The children leave in the morning and head to school, and the women bring food and supplies from outside the prison to sell at market stalls in the different sections, in order to help support their families.

There also facilities to relax and have fun. There are pool halls, video games room, gyms, saunas and also football courts. Football is the biggest sport and there are intersection tournaments, which also generate a fair amount of money through betting.

Around 80% of the inmates are serving sentences for drug-related offences, and around 75% of the total prisoner population are awaiting trial. There are on average four deaths every month inside the prison from natural causes or from violent attacks. The police rarely enter the prison. Everything is controlled and run by the inmates themselves. Each section makes their own rules and hold annual elections to nominate a delegate and financial secretary for their section. These are taken very seriously, and most delegates hold a huge amount of respect from their sections and neighbours.

Whilst relatively safe, stabbings and violence do occur. This is not surprising, considering the high availability of narcotics and alcohol within the prison. Cocaine is actually produced inside the prison, and at night the larger laboratories run, making large amounts of cocaine, that is sold within and outside the prison. Individual prisoners often set up their own crude processing and filtration systems in their cells. Most prisoners are on drugs, and a large amount of money is passed through the prison this way. The prisoners from the poorer sections smoke cocaine base, which is the less refined paste that cocaine is made from. It is highly addictive and sometimes causes the prisoners to self harm in order to ´come down´. One inmates pet is known at ´Crack Cat´, as it is also addicted to smoking ´base´.

For more information and a more insightful look at life inside San Pedro prison, I recommend that you read Marching Powder by Rusty Young. In 2000, Rusty lived inside San Pedro with Thomas for 4 months, and the book is Thomas´ story about his life inside the infamous Bolivian prison.

Having read the book prior to visiting San Pedro prison, I knew something of what to expect and roughly how the system worked inside the prison. Nothing can fully prepare you though for what you see. We had spoken to the Irish girls and also some people in the hostel to get some tips on how best to get inside, how much it costs and most importantly who to ask for.

The night before we went, we sat in the bar trying to find a few more people to drag along with us. As luck would have it, we came across Enda, an Irish lad who we had first met in Mendoza. He was travelling with 2 other guys and all were interested in visiting the prison the next day. We also managed to enrol Sarah, a girl from London, who was keen on going, but not so much on her own! We had been advised not to go in a too large a group, as we wouldn’t all be able to fit in one cell…! So we said our good nights and arranged to meet at 11am the next day.

On the way to the prison the next day, we were all somewhat nervous, there was little talking. Before we got to the plaza outside the prison, we made sure to remember to buy a number of cigarette packets and lots of sweets. The cigarettes we had been told were useful as sweeteners for the prisoners and the sweets themselves were primarily for the kids inside. We had been told that to get in, all we had to do was hang around in the well kept Plaza, and wait to be approached. Within 5 minutes of standing around, a large black man with a South African accent came up to us, and asked if we were “Waiting for someone?” He introduced himself as Kenny, a former prisoner, inside for drug trafficking. He explained the procedure and costs, and before we knew it we were inside the main gates, and palming 250 boliviano (around 25 pounds) to the prison guards. We then signed our names and received a stamp on our hand in return, before walking into the main courtyard.

Someone in the hostel had advised us to ask for Juan (not his real name), and whilst we had been signing in, Kenny had sent one of the taxistas to fetch him. He was a local man, and like so many others, was also awaiting trial for drug offences. He was well dressed and spoke very good English. Juan took us on a three hour tour of the prison, where we visited all the sections, and were introduced to a number of prisoners, some whom were more than willing to tell us their story. We saw the large kitchens, the shops and restaurants, the church, the pool halls, and at one stage stupidly wandered onto the football court. We were given the opportunity to purchase beautiful toys that had been made by one man and bracelets by another.

Midway through the tour we stopped off at one cell belonging to our body guard, Eduardo, who was inside for murder. He showed around his cell, which was home to his wife and two kids. His wife kindly offered us some coconut cake she had baked and made sure we all had somewhere to sit. The place, whilst in one of the more upmarket sections, was still cramped. The roof was made from tin sheeting, and had a hole through which to get up onto the roof. Whilst we were chatting to Eduardo´s family, a taxista turned up with 2 more people for our tour, they were a Dutch couple. They looked incredibly nervous, and when they were offered some cake, immediately turned it down. Eduardo explained to them jokingly that “it was free from drugs”… they did not laugh, and remained hungry. On our way out we purchased some more cake to eat as we walked.

As we were shown around the prison, numerous little hands tugged at our trousers; their seemingly innocent voices asking for a ´dulce´ (a sweet). We handed them out to all that asked: some even being cheeky enough to immediately ask for “una mas” (one more). They behaved like children do; their laughter and mischief following us along the tour. It was impossible though not to ask ourselves what sort of life they were living, and what things they had seen and heard. But then, who were we to judge, and furthermore, would their life be any more wholesome on the outside world.

The tour was full of contrasts; from seeing the 5 star sections, we headed down to the infirmary where we saw a number of base addicts who were being treated for self harm. Their expressions were vacant. It was both eye opening and sad. At one stage, when I bent down to hand out some more sweets, I looked at the wall in front of me, and noticed that it was splattered with what appeared to be blood. I looked at Eduardo for confirmation, who simply nodded at me. There were constant reminders that we were in a prison, and that it had potential to be incredibly dangerous. The most poignant of these was the ´swimming pool´. I had read about this in Marching Powder, so felt a chill down my spine when I saw it. The prisoners themselves sometimes decide on the punishment of prisoners, if they have committed a certain crime, such as rape. The pool itself was used, as described in one rather graphic section of the book, for one particular vigilante punishment.

We did not however, feel unsafe during our tour. Despite the fact that we had bodyguards, their presence eased any tension that we may have felt. We were careful not to take any photos without asking permission first (a camera cost an extra bribe at the gate – we only took one between us) Claire and Sarah had made sure that they dressed appropriately, something however which the Dutch girl had failed to do. Wearing a pair of hot pants and vest top, she unnecessarily attracted attention to herself, and to the entire group. Her ´wet blanket´ of a boyfriend simply tagged along at the back, slowly getting paler; and at one stage he had to be escorted to the bathroom by our bodyguards, as his nervous bowels weren’t holding up too well…

The tour ended with us being invited back to a cell, belonging to one of Raul´s friends. When inside the cell, with music blaring from the CD player, we were invited to ask any questions that we had. Raul also asked us if we wished to try any ´local produce´. Looking at the table, we noticed a few bags of cocaine scattered across a mirror, with a powdered credit card poised for use. We declined, but by all accounts from what we heard in other hostels, not everyone shows the same restraint.

Raul showed us back to the main gate, and asked us if we had enjoyed the tour, and to tell all our friends to ask for him. Whilst I wouldn’t say that I ´enjoyed´ the tour per se, it was certainly interesting and eye opening. Also it makes for a great story!




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