A Glimpse Inside San Pedro: Bolivia’s Self-Run Prison

Right in the heart of La Paz’ middle class San Pedro neighborhood lies one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Cárcel de San Pedro (San Pedro Prison) reached international fame in 2003 when Australian law graduate Rusty Young released his first novel, Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail. The bestselling book captivated readers for its harrowing insight into the lawlessness and corruption inside the now-infamous jail. After all, this is a prison that is completely self-run, where police only patrol the perimeter to thwart potential escape efforts, leaving governance entirely in the hands of the criminals inside.

Three thousand inmates cram into the chaotic prison that was originally designed for just 600. They are not assigned rations or accommodation by the state, instead relying on the generosity of family members or income from menial jobs on the inside. There are a number of employment opportunities inside the jail, from bar tenders, chefs, waiters and shopkeepers, to security guards, politicians and real estate agents. Some years ago, there were even guided tours given inside the prison. Corrupt guards would allow English-speaking guides to escort foreign tourists through the complex, some of whom stayed overnight to enjoy wild, cocaine-fueled parties.

Much like life in the free world, society inside the prison is divided into classes depending on the economic wealth of the inmate. The poorest reside in notoriously dangerous sections which are crammed full of addicts sharing with up to five people in a cell designed for one. But the quality of accommodation increases dramatically for those with financial means, with the richest living in fancy, gated communities that are segregated from the rest. Many of these are corrupt businessmen, politicians or narco-traffickers who enjoy luxuries such as flat-screen TVs, wifi, or even Jacuzzis.

The process of purchasing accommodation is surprisingly formal. Available cells are advertised on leaflets throughout the complex and buyers purchase their cells directly from the prison mayor or through a freelance real estate agent. Taxes must be paid on real estate to cover things like maintenance, security, cleaning, renovation, and even the occasional event. After agreeing on a price, titles are signed in front of an authorized witness who verifies the details and formalizes the transaction with an official seal. Prices range from US$20 for floor space in a cramped cell to US$5,000 or more for the prison’s finest apartments. Those who cannot afford to buy a cell can rent one for cash or in exchange for work.

theculturetrip A Glimpse Inside San Pedro: Bolivia’s Self-Run Prison