The San Pedro prison tour in La Paz, Bolivia is illegal and always has been. Nonetheless, hundreds, possibly thousands of tourists have taken this tour. Thanks to the irresponsible actions of prison staff and foreigners alike, in March 2009 there was a mutiny at the San Pedro Prison which resulted in injured inmates and visiting family members, as well as 150 children who live at the prison with their incarcerated parents, most of whom were tear-gassed. So let's back up and let me tell you what I know about the San Pedro prison in La Paz from my own personal experience and then I'll give you a run down of the events that led up to this mutiny and what's happened since.
When I was young and lived in La Paz, I used to visit the San Pedro prison and the women's prison in Obrajes with my mom. It was part of the missionary work my mom did. I was 10 years old. The San Pedro prison is filthy, cramped, and not a nice sight. Most prisoners have to have people bring them food and other necessary things. You get searched thoroughly on the way in, including your clothes, shoes, hat, hair, and inside your mouth, as well as anything you are carrying. Cellphones didn't exist back then but I'm assuming they wouldn't be allowed today. Cameras were not allowed even back then.
(This video is from Prison Fellowship International (www.pfi.org)
Prison Fellowship International is not connected with this website and does not necessarily endorse any views expressed here.)
At no time were we ever charged a fee to enter the prison. We took food and sometimes clothing to the inmates we visited. Sometimes my mom would read to them. At the San Pedro prison which is supposed to be only for men, we mostly visited single inmates at the request of their family members who possibly couldn't make it on that particular visitation day. Some of the inmates didn't have family members. You may not know this, but prisoners have to pay rent for their rooms and if they don't have family members to visit them, they lack even the basics like soap, shampoo, bathroom tissue, clothing, etc. and usually resort to bartering items with other inmates.
What I remember about the San Pedro prison was that the little rooms were really like little rooms, not cells with sliding bar doors like you see on TV. They are tiny rooms that prisoners sometimes have to share and there is only room for one tiny bed so if there is a roommate, that person sleeps on the floor. At night they close the doors and lock them from the outside. The inside of this prison looks like a small town. It even has little "stores". Prisons make handcrafts and other things. Their family members sell them around the city during the day.
As a child I was unaware of the other things about this and other prisons - like the "protection" new prisoners say they have to buy from more established resident prisoners, the abuse they say they suffer from authorities, the bribes they say they have to pay to get even the most basic necessities (most of which have to be brought in by family members anyways), the sexual assaults many of then say they endure, the beatings by guards when under questioning, and so on.
My visits to the San Pedro prison had a lasting impression on me. I still think people who commit crimes should pay for their actions in the same measure; however my visits to the prison gave me the chance to actually sit down and talk with them, learn more about who they are, where they come from, and the events that let up to the actions that resulted in their incarceration. We also met their family members and children.
(Not mine. This is about Bolivian prison kids in Cochabamba.)
In the women's prison in Obrajes there were many MANY children. On Sundays we used to take games and candy, donated clothing and toys and play with them, sing together and entertain them in general because their mothers had no one to leave them with outside the prison (and some of them were actually born inside the prison). I was aware of the situation the children were living. Many were my age or younger, we became friends. They told me about their lives, their isolation, their fears. I used to cry because I didn't want to leave my friends in there when it was time to go.
The women's prison is a little bit easier on the eyes than the San Pedro prison. The rooms are tiny and cramped but if I remember correctly there was a large interior courtyard with grass and flowers and the women had to do a lot of cleaning and chores. The women sew and knit and do other crafts although I was too young to know if that was something the prison offered or if they just organized themselves and did it on their own. Like San Pedro, they looked forward to our visits and always had little presents waiting for us (things they had made). Visiting the prisons had a very harsh impact on me as a kid but was a completely positive learning experience for me.
Of course, as a child if there was anything illegal going on at these facilities (such as the production of cocaine as we've recently seen on the news) I was unaware of this. My experience as a visitor who actually went to visit the PEOPLE and bring them some comfort is completely different from the visits tourists are making to gawk at the people and facilities with the sole intention of going back to their comfortable outside-world live to brag "I did that, it was illegal, and I got away with it". At least that's the kind of comment I'm seeing frequently on tourist and travel forums.
Prison Tours Led to Mutiny at San Pedro
In 2004 a book was written called Marching Powder. It tells of life inside the prison from the point of view of two foreigners who were imprisoned there. One of them, Thomas McFadden, survived by giving prison tours to foreign tourists. This is how the prison tours apparently began, although some say they existed before this. The authors also tell of the illegal activities that occur inside the jail including the manufacturing and sale of cocaine (much of it, allegedly, to the tourists who visit).
I believe they're unintentionally partly responsible for the pain and suffering of over 100 little kids a few days ago (as you'll read further below about the mutiny) but if you want to purchase the book and read the rest of his story, it's your choice. There's a movie in the works based on the book, produced by one of my absolutely favorite actors Brad Pitt. I grew up admiring him but for reasons you'll see below, I'll be skipping the Hollywood glorification of this horrible episode. I just cannot support it in any way.
As a fan I'm sadder than you can imagine to know Brad Pitt is associated with this. Given the amazing work he's been doing lately to help so many poor families and kids I just can't begin understand it. But that's another story. And of course, that's just my personal opinion.
(In 2007 the prison director said the children would be moved to shelters. In March 2009 they were still there. Even though a 10-year old girl was raped and killed by an inmate).
Use of this video was authorized for this article. It was filmed in 1998 as part of a documentary series for Australian television. Tony Wilson received government permission to enter the prison and was constantly monitored while making the story. He paid nothing for access. I just wanted you to see what it's like for the families inside. I'm grateful to him for giving us this view of what life in prison really implies.
These tours apparently became quite profitable as they became more and more frequent and the groups of tourists wanting to get in became larger and larger after this book was published. Apparently other people outside the prison also began to give these tours for profit, and they became quite organized. Unbelievably, even famous travel guides and online travel forums and websites list the San Pedro prison as a tour. Never mind that it's against the law and a big risk for tourists to take if they get caught.
Typical messages between tourists on popular travel forums sound something like this: "The best thing to do is to show up at...The tour lasts about 1 hour and costs...extra costs include...our tour guide was...we got scammed by...just wait and the guides will approach you...be sure to tip the guards...buy them drinks..." and so on. From what I've read on tourist forums, there are at least 5 different openly identified foreigners who await tourists at the plaza and get them in to these tours but if I put any more detail I'll feel like I'm giving them some completely unmerited publicity.
Other factors probably helped increase the interest of foreigners in this prison - like the incarceration there of important public figures, including the Prefect of Pando Leopoldo Fernandez, the president of YPFB (and one of the MAS party's trusted heads) Santos Ramirez, or the other 15-20 prisoners there who are considered political prisoners. Maybe tourists are interested in meeting them, maybe they just want to be able to say "I was actually in that prison".
In February of 2009 a group of tourists posted a video of their San Pedro prison tour on YouTube. In an irreverent tone they boasted about their tour, were seen laughing and enjoying it, and they filmed some of the cocaine manufactured inside, as well as the facilities, rooms, kitchen and other areas. Days later, tourists began to show up in record numbers at the Plaza across from the prison. This drew the attention of neighbors and the general population. There were too many and it was too obvious.
In early March someone alerted the Bolivian media to the YouTube video. Several national television stations downloaded it and played the full video on national TV news during the second week of March. Television stations sent crews to the plaza to film the tourists entering and leaving. During the first few days tourists seemed to exit fearfully. In fact on the first day, a group of 25 or so tourists was unable to leave the prison for several hours. News crews awaited outside and they didn't want to be filmed.
Two or three days later, we saw tourists covering their faces with their clothing, but getting used to the media. By the end of the week, tourists were no longer hiding their identities. Foreign teens looked straight into the camera laughing and giving news crews "the bird" (raising their middle finger - as you can see in the video below) in defiance so as to say "I got in to the San Pedro prison tour - ha!" The lack of respect for the Bolivian people was obvious and it was filmed all week. The government could no longer ignore this. On March 20th, 2009 the media announced the government had replaced the prison director.
See him flatly deny any knowledge of the San Pedro Prison Tour:
(By the way the YouTube video (originally found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=folJqPu8Tyc) was recently tagged as private and can no longer be seen online but news crews still have it here in Bolivia).
Consequences of the San Pedro Prison Tours
The new prison director immediately put a stop to the San Pedro prison tours. He also curtailed visiting hours for friends and relatives and imposed several other rules and sanctions. This angered the prisoners and their families. Why should they have to suffer because prison officials and foreigners didn't respect the law? (I guess the prisoners think "we're already in here, we've already broken the law") This evidently affected their economies. The result: they revolted!
On March 26th at about 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, what apparently began as a small discussion and fight escalated into an all our prisoner mutiny against the new director and new rules. As news crews were already on site, this was filmed from the start. Hundreds of police officers were sent in to control the situation. On live television we watched as the police shot canisters of tear gas into the prison's interior patio and scaled the prison walls. Soon prisoners were scrambling up walls and onto the roof. Several very nearly escaped. The entire neighborhood was affected by the tear gas. If you've ever been sprayed with teargas you're aware of how extremely painful it is.
Visiting family members later said the prison guards would not let them out. Children and babies visiting inside the prison were gassed and mothers claimed two babies had passed out. No medical attention was given and they were not allowed to leave. Several inmates were injured and eventually, many hours later, were given medical care. On the outside, police officers used ropes to send canisters of tear gas up the walls to other officers waiting atop the roofs.
Outside the prison neighbors fled their homes and teachers and terrified children poured out from a school across the street, their eyes and throats burning, the children crying, the teachers furious. The office of the Defensora del Pueblo put them up in a building and called for medical attention. It is said 150 children live with their parents in the San Pedro prison and attend this school. Sadly, although most of them will get over the physical problems caused by the teargas, the emotional trauma will most likely endure. As if living in a prison among drug traffickers, murderers and criminals were not traumatic enough for these children.
The mutiny was quickly controlled and lasted only a few hours. By nighttime news correspondents were reporting that the children would be under medical watch until the next day, but inside the prison everything had been controlled.
Two days later prisoners and the new director negotiated and prisoners reportedly agreed to accept the new rules and limitations while the director agreed to put them into effect gradually and not overnight. The tours obviously were an important source of income both for guards and prisoners.
So what now? Now there is even more resentment against American and European tourists, who already have a horrible reputation for their behavior in other countries. And this resentment pours over onto those of us who live here as residents, love the country and have made it our homes. Few Bolivians think of the illegality of the prisoners and guards actions. All they remember is the foreign girl who stuck her middle finger out at Bolivia for the whole world to see.
The tours were stopped for several weeks but I hear they're offering them again. Consider what you've read before you take one. Ask yourself what it is you're really curious to see. Despite that it is a prison, the inmates live there and their families and children live there. It's someone's home.
Of course tourists and foreigners can't possibly keep track of how their every word and action will affect the residents of the country they are visiting. That's logistically impossible for anyone to do. But isn't it possible to be more respectful? Not to mention, is your own safety actually worth it? And what kind of message is being sent to those who are in prison? That they must pay for their crimes but foreigners can get away with theirs for Bs. 250 per tour? Tourists (and the international travel guides that promote them) forget that taking this tour is actually a crime punishable by law.
April 2010 - A Year Later
Over the past year I've received a lot of comments about this article and I respect each opinion shared (you can read them all below). Some of you really reamed me. That's OK. It's just my opinion after all. When I first wrote this just over a year go, I had just spent several days watching the news about this revolt, viewing tourist videos of the tours online, and reading about their experiences on several blogs. It struck me that so few of them believed they have any responsibility whatsoever in ensuring the existence of these tours. It also strikes me how many people have interpreted this article to be against tourists only. So here's a little more about what I think, although I did say most of this above:
These tours exist because corrupt prison officials allow them to exist. They exist because reckless tour guides promote them. They exist because some prisoners agree to them (many do not appreciate them!) They exist because blogs, sites, books like Marching Powder and movies help make them known and awaken people's curiosity, which is also a form of promotion, whether intentional or not. They exist because tourists seek out this tour, actively request it, and willingly pay for it, and that is intentional. All who participate in these manners in this tour share the responsibility for their existence.
There is nothing benevolent or altruistic about taking this tour. It's a risk to you and your liberty. Some have said they just want to help the prisoners who depend on this income. If your true reason for visiting is to help them, there are numerous volunteer agencies who work with them and entering the prison to do so is not required. They also really need donations. You can see some of them on our Volunteer Programs page here. If you do so, please come back to our Volunteer Forum and tell us about your experiences.