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to get into kyoto university to study energy and environmental policy, thereby saving the world!
If you like this story you will like me:
The less fortunate among you will, at some point in your life, have to endure the hideously uninteresting account of someone’s ‘Gap Year’, an unremitting and self-congratulatory ramble which includes all manner of personal discovery, courage in the face of 4* hotels, and frequent soporific references to all the genuine friends they made; i.e. other ‘trustafarian’ bell-ends who went to Tanzania to teach local kids how to tan. Once in a while, however, we hear a decent story (in this case it will end up as a Hollywood film).
Our tale begins in the curious lands of Bolivia, which for those who failed at geography is no more than another insignificant South American country slumped somewhere between Ecuador, Brazil and Tony Montana. You aren’t alone; the president looks on Wikipedia every morning to remind himself which country he is running. A proverbial analogy refers to Bolivia as ‘a donkey sitting on a gold-mine’; this is true enough if the donkey is ‘legions of corrupt officials’ and the gold is ‘enough cocaine base to supply a lifetime of rowdy sex with Sigmund Freud’. In fact, for all you Class A narcotic trivia fans; cocaine production is second only to Colombia. A synopsis of contemporary Bolivia would include references to perennial political instability and a relatively miserable economy despite an abundance of natural resources. For want of a better summary, this landlocked, largely indigenous and poorly led country is having a laugh.
This may elucidate why the Bolivian Government decided, over a decade ago, to curb spending on its penal system and immediately remove the entirety of internal guards from San Pedro Prison; situated in the centre of the capital La Paz. What followed is an unparalleled social experiment of the sickest (both meanings) order; 1500 convicts left to their own devices, with only a small number of unscrupulous sentries left to impede escape. This is a glimpse of the prison through the eyes of a foolish 17 year old.
Storytime, gather around:
I hesitate outside the family entrance to San Pedro, watching relatives of the inmates queuing outside with nonchalance that wouldn’t look out of place in Starbucks, and wonder exactly how many hippie girls I will later impress by walking into a building brimming with murderers and rapists. Lots, I decide and stride up to the gate and state in what I think is an assured tone ‘I am here to see my cousin’. ‘His last name?’ asks pot-bellied guard number one. ‘Sierra, Kenneth Sierra’ I reply too quickly, as though this is a GCSE Spanish Oral, not haphazard perjury in a third world country. Surprisingly they decide I look enough like the South African gang member I spoke to on the phone earlier in the day, and gesture me inside. My gangster pride is short-lived when I see the man I am supposed to be related to – sickly skin, sunken eyes and a slightly mental smile adorn Kenneth Sierra’s theatrical face – more evidence of crack than on a nude beach. The guards pat me down one more time, noticeably unimpressed by the nerve-induced ‘mini-willy’ I am sporting, and I enter an enigma only ever witnessed by a few hundred outsiders.
It’s nothing like I had imagined. The backstage of Jerry Springer looks more like a prison. The entire complex has been converted into a village with apartments, market stalls, cafés; even a hairdresser (Antonio & Gui). Remnants of the original prison, with the exception of the walls and guard towers, are almost impossible to distinguish. A Bolivian child runs up to me, pauses with intense concentration on his furiously smiling face, farts loudly and runs off to the applause and laughter of his amigos. This serves only to add to the surrealism of the scene in front of me: convicts and their families relaxing in the main square café, elders playing draughts, several composed men heading to church, restaurants with blackboards advertising their cuisine, posters of local politicians (implying the inhabitants right to vote), corporate sponsorship in the form of (anti-globalisation people look away now) Coca-Cola umbrellas and a single phrase printed on numerous walls; ‘The only thing we don’t have is freedom’.
I remind myself that the only entity separating me from these criminals was the rapidly degenerating stamp on my arm indicating I was a ‘family visitor’- almost like a nightclub stamp, except it guaranteed my return to the real world, instead of Space Ibiza.
Through dramatic tales from a variety of foreigners who call San Pedro their home (which are no doubt susceptible to historiographical inaccuracies), I begin to appreciate the, culture, demographics and societal values of this inscrutable prison. Here is an outline tailored for a short-attention span.
Following the removal of prison officers from the inside of San Pedro, there was, rather inevitably, a brief struggle for power between various factions of dodgy criminals. After the initial bloodbath, a rigid hierarchy began to emerge, somewhat totalitarian, with straightforward capital the key proponent of power. In other words, cash is king. If you can hire a hit man to watch your back, you are less likely to be carried out of the main entrance wrapped in a carpet and your body dumped off the La Paz mountainside (less fun than it sounds). It’s a bit like working in media or investment banking, but slightly less violent. This is how Francisco, a Portuguese drug dealer for whom Kenneth worked and whose three-bedroom apartment I stayed in, was able to seize authority within San Pedro. While the poorest prisoners, regardless of their crime, crowd in smelly hovels, the majority of foreigners and the ‘posh’ Bolivian inmates pay up to £8000 to live in apartment-style accommodation. Francisco is a privileged chap; his pad is particularly sought after; complete with ensuite bathroom, ensuite girlfriend and a Playstation 2 (and Pro Evolution Soccer – he’s living the dream). The remaining outside guards are extraordinarily receptive to bribes; and their sponsored myopia is fundamental to the prison's notoriety, as they turn a blind eye to all manner of things passing through the gates, from cocaine leaves to HD-ready plasma screens.
Anecdotes from Francisco’s sitting room deserve their own paragraph. The burly, long haired Portugeezer habitually invites locals from in and out of the prison to his table for a drink, a smoke, a line (or twenty). Among them was Kenneth’s friend Jason, a retired gang member from Cape Town who laughs as he describes burning out the eyes of a victim with a poker and then giving him a fashionable pair of sunglasses. I try my best not to shit my pants, and manage a fake laugh/whimper. My manliness takes another turn for the worse when Francisco thinks it would be amusing to lob his knife onto the table right in front of me, to demonstrate artfully that there are no guns in San Pedro, only huge switchblades. Fortunately a girl next to me beats me to the fainting. His Vietnamese girlfriend documents the wacky mix of visitors with her Canon, the same model I idiotically snuck in my boot and used for the accompanying photographs. Another regular at Francisco's (sounds like a family restaurant) is Angelo from Amsterdam, caught on the Bolivian-Paraguayan border with 7.5 kilos of cocaine, and thrown without trial into San Pedro. Because he didn’t have the minimum requirement of $400 to be permitted into the wealthier section, he spent a few months on the bottom rung of the prison ladder squashed with the other penniless criminals before finding a job in a café. He offers to show me some of the more clandestine areas of San Pedro.
The following day, whilst promenading through the winding semi-underground corridors, Angelo remembers to say that I should stick close to him, otherwise anyone could pull me into a chamber out of his territory and then he could do nothing, ‘and I don’t want blood on my hands – I have enough ( lol ? )’. He immediately regrets mentioning this as I opt for safety reasons to walk an inch behind him at all times, causing more than one of the other prisoners to ask if he had smuggled in a rentboy. ‘I suppose that’s always a back-up career path if I don’t get into Imperial’, I say as we wait outside a cell used primarily to isolate individuals, certain that my wit would not be lost on these dangerous convicts. There is no time for laughs however, as the occupant of the solitary confinement unit comes out of his stupor and extends a greeting by spitting on my forehead. When someone spits on you it is usually an accident and the worst case scenario is that the conversation/anecdote/sex becomes awkward; in San Pedro it’s just quicker than saying ‘Get out of my face before I rape you’. Disturbingly, the next time I saw this dude he blew me a kiss, and looked extremely disappointed that I refused to catch it/put it in my pocket/save it for later. ‘Catch it, Bin it, Kill it’ was definitely more appropriate. I hear that this ‘prisoner of prisoners’ is an exceptionally lucky bloke; most child molesters are beaten, tortured and eventually drowned in the prison swimming pool. I immediately cancel my pre-lunch dip.
The prison-top also has its charm. Later, as we cross the rooftops, the entirety of the city’s precipitous horizon stretching before me, Angelo abruptly halts. I promptly drop to the floor, Bond-style, causing a spasm of pain in my knee. He gestures towards the corrugated iron coverings of the subordinate sections, where a large sweaty man is lugging what looks like a cadaver wrapped in a sheet on his shoulder. ‘Haha, it looks like he is carrying a dead body’ I remark hilariously. ‘That is a dead body’ replies Angelo with the tone of a scout-master imparting knowledge about woodland creatures. I notice, and simultaneously experience the increasingly familiar ‘random sick in my mouth’, that there are multiple corpses laid out across the roof, their white draping covers fluttering in the wind. I make an excuse about the burning midday sun and ask to return inside (yet the wifebeater tan I was slowly acquiring, despite being the least socially acceptable of all tan lines, was not the cause for my concern). According to Angie, violent behaviour in the prison is commonplace, but not excessive – he estimated there are 3 or 4 stabbings a month; usually at night. I can't help thinking that even in Compton you have somewhere to run.
Angelo takes me to meet another mate of his, who supposedly has an even ‘more pimp’ house than Francisco. I haven’t watched that many Cribs episodes (ok that's a lie), but I’m fairly sure none of those residences had what was essentially a laboratory for processing and filtering cocaine. His buddy, now manically looking me up and down, was imprisoned for ‘killing people’, but now runs a flourishing nose candy refinery and distribution centre straight out of San Pedro.
The same day Angelo shows me a very different offender, Alfonso, living in a moderately comfortable converted cell with his wife and two children. His modesty and sheer acceptance of his family's bizarre fate could not be more contrasting to our previous host - despite supposedly being incorrectly convicted of fraud and thrown in with no release date. The manner in which he describes his 'trial', if one is using quotation marks liberally, epitomizes the infirmity of each inmate with respect to their parole, and this mentality has pervaded the entire prison, from the rich to the ragged. The lack of guards on this inside is matched by the lack of administrators, lawyers and magistrates who could give any of these men (or women) an indication of when they might wake up to a free life. When I am finally permitted to leave the prison (which required another cheeky bribe (or 20), I admit unashamedly that the sigh of relief passing from my chest to my lips was the longest I expect I will ever experience. My new appreciation of freedom certainly freaked out an elderly Bolivian lady standing next to me. Hasta Luego Pedro...
Since the time I spent in San Pedro in early 2008, the scene has changed considerably. A good analogy is a band/DJ/hip area of London that you rave endlessly about, but as soon as they get ‘commercial’ just a mention of the name makes you nauseous and angsty. In the same manner, the inmates of San Pedro went slightly overboard providing economically priced narcotics to tourists (even already unemployed hippies feel the credit crunch), and in mid 2009 the government dismissed the prison governor, and all foreign visits were suspended indefinitely. San Pedro’s increased publicity is also due to the legendary Australian adventurer/novelist/lawyer Rusty Young, who detailed his experiences living in the prison in the critically acclaimed ‘Marching Powder’ (next edition: interview with Rusty). The film adaptation, courtesy of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment production company, is expected in 2010, so be grateful you know about it before it gets all commercial and you stop feeling special. Also I think there’s still time for me to bag a role; someone has to play the dense, delusional, ‘definitely underage’ dilettante.
My karma ran over your dogma
Dancing like people are watching
Trying to be funny
Filling in boxes about my interests
- adventure races
Countries I’ve Visited
Argentina, Bahrain, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, France, French Polynesia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, United States
Countries I’ve Lived In
Cuba, Japan, Qatar, United Kingdom