Luxuriously decorated apartments sit overlooking La Paz and snowcapped mountains; children run in the courtyard; the Coca-Cola-sponsored soccer team plays a lively game; diners enjoy a leisurely lunch in neighborhood restaurants; grocery stores sell fresh goods; men read the newspaper as their shoes are shined. The scene could be that of an upper-class, gated community. In a way, thatâ€™s exactly what it is. However, the people behind these gates cannot come and go as they please.
Looks can be deceivingâ€”these men and women arenâ€™t here for a little R and Râ€”they were caught committing serious crimes like murder or smuggling millions of dollars worth of cocaine. They are now living behind the gates of San Pedro Prison in La Paz, serving hard time.
The gates cannot keep out the problems of the outside world. Like any city, San Pedro Prison has a dark side. There are drug lords, daily acts of violence, and many inmates are addicted to smoking cocaine base, which is readily available from laboratories inside the prison walls.
The prisoners without money live day to day like they would on the streets and are confined to small cells. Here in San Pedro, money can buy a sense of freedom. Prisoners must purchase their own cells, and the more money spent, the more lavish and comfortable the living quarters. One prisoner didnâ€™t like the four-star wing of the prison, so he constructed a new building and designated the penthouse for himself.
There are 200 children of inmates living in San Pedro. Under Bolivian legislation, it is legal for children under six to live with their incarcerated parents. Often wives of imprisoned husbands live here to cut down on expenses. Although living conditions are not ideal, the family can stay together as one unit.
For years, San Pedro has been the venue for illegal tours around the prison. The authorities recently put an end to these visits and it is not recommended that you try and enter the prison for a tour.
For an fascinating account of the prison, read Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail by Thomas McFadden and Rusty Young.