I worked in San Pedro prison, and the tours weren't appreciated by the inmates
by Dan Moriarty
I understand people saying, "it's fascinating, and we're helping the inmates." But they're really not. I worked for several years in San Pedro, knew Tommy McFadden, and worked closely with the inmates' elected delegates on human rights and prison reform campaigns. And most inmates very much resented those tours. They were run by a small gang of inmates, and for them, yes, it was lucrative (there were even gang fights over who got to run the tours). There were payoffs to the cops involved, so it was lucrative for them, too. But in "supporting" those people, tourists also contributed to gang power and corruption in the prison, which ultimately isn't good for the general inmate population or for Bolivia. As for the fascinating experience tourists got, it was a show put on just for them. The tours were completely sensationalized. The reality of the prison (which IS actually fascinating, as there is a very positive and unique story to be told about the way the inmates self-organize, etc.) was distorted for the entertainment of tourists. The level of violence, nature of the drug trade, etc. in the prison was regularly exaggerated. There are some major "facts" in Marching Powder that simply aren't true (the murder rate in San Pedro, for example). A lot of the tourists did indeed finish the tour by buying drugs and often using them together with the inmates who gave the tour. But the biggest reason I never liked the tours was because the vast majority of the inmates didn't like them. They were made to feel like animals in a zoo. Foreigners came to gawk at how pathetic or exotic or horrible or funny their lives there seemed, and they were forced to be part of the show. Again, it was one small group of guys running the tours. But all 1,500+ inmates were on display. I'm sure the occasional tourist was sensitive, and was inspired or learned something worthwhile on the tour. But I feel strongly that the effect of the tours was, overall, degrading and exploitative. I hope they've stopped for good.