Sneaking into Bolivia’s San Pedro Prison

Today’s guest post is a very unique story by Jason Batansky, from Locationless Living, a location independent traveler who apparently has no fear. Although sneaking into a Bolivian prison may not sound like a tourist activity, Jason shares his very unique experience doing just that. This is a fantastic read and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Entering a Bolivian prison sounds like a nightmare scenario for most travelers. Third world prisons generate a fear and fascination that western culture exploits in TV shows like “Looked Up Abroad.” And there’s a movie coming out supposedly soon) based on Rusty Young’s book “Marching Powder,” which tells of his experiences in Bolivia’s San Pedro prison. This is also where I was in July of 2009. But instead of being sentenced there by a Bolivian judge, I snuck in. And I was speaking to a high level opposition leader who was there as a political prisoner.

Backpacking is awesome.

I should probably explain that San Pedro prison is not hard to sneak into. They have tours there. Kids play there. San Pedro has to be the most unique prison in the world. In San Pedro, the prisoners run the prison. The prisoners elect leaders, pay rent on their cells, and have their own businesses. Some move their families there. The guards are only there to keep them in. (Although there are day passes.) The laws there, created and administered by the prisoners and their elected officials, are enforced strongly and violently. There are women and children living there. It’s a kind of jail city state that is probably the most unique form of imprisonment in the world. Naturally, I wanted to see it.

Creative Commons License photo credit: elisharene

When I went, I wasn’t real confident in my chances of getting in. In fact, the taxi driver pretty much called me a moron for even trying. Although there had been tours before (Young became famous for giving English language tours there) they were shut down now. A shoe shine boy working in front of the prison told me that I could just get in line. Seemed simple enough, if a little bold. I figured the worst they could do is find out I didn’t have a reason to be there and not let me in. I couldn’t imagine they would punish me for trying to sneak into a prison by putting me in prison.

I got into the line. There were three checkpoints. I got a stamp or a sharpie mark on my arm for each one. First a pat down, then a guy who looked at my passport and asked me who I was visiting.

“Jose,” I offered, weakly.

“Jose, who?”

“Jose P. He’s a friend. Of a friend.”

The guard laughed. He asked me what hostel I was staying at. He knew exactly what I was doing and seemed amused by it. He let me pass, then a metal detector check point and I was in.

Immediately prisoners came up to me, offering a variety of crafts and snacks for sale. I was a little intimidated, not knowing what proper protocol was. Then someone came up to me and asked what I was looking for. I said someone who speaks English. He walked over to another man and brought him to me.

This was going to be my guide, I learned. He spoke little English, but I understood most of what he told me.

Creative Commons License photo credit: elisharene

There was a lot to see. It is a veritable city, after all. But the most interesting part was when my guide told Leopoldo Fernandez that I was a journalist wanting to interview him. I didn’t know who Leopoldo Fernandez was. But I asked him to start at the beginning, figuring that was a sort of neutral question that might explain why this man would only speak to journalists, and why my guide was willing to lie to give me an opportunity to talk to him. Turns out he was the opposition party’s vice presidential candidate, and a former governor. (I double checked his story later, all true.) He had been held in prison for a year without charges (he has since been charged with murder, terrorism, and conspiracy, among others.) His Spanish was hard to follow, but he definitely had the fiery voice and convictions of a seasoned politician. He railed against President Evo Morales, being angry in the controlled way of a professional subversive.

My guide took me to other parts of the prison. We bought barbeque, we saw the church and the pastor. I was offered cocaine and when I passed my guide partook. He showed me a shank and told me that he had killed a man with it years before. After that I paid him promptly for his time. And then I left, exercising freedom that I was suddenly grateful for. It is a kind of freedom to be able to forget the struggles of the men who seek to build a better life inside prison walls, and the men who are in prison walls because they
tried to build a better life outside of them.

Note: I met a Danish prisoner, Sebastian, who asked me to pass along his cell phone number (2324002). If you want to arrange a tour in advance calling Sebastian might do the trick.

By: Jason Batansky

Jason Batansky is a location independent 23 year old traveling throughout the world, working 20-odd hours a week running 3 web-based businesses. He writes about his travels at Locationless Living. You can find him on Twitter @Locationless.

9 thoughts on “Sneaking into Bolivia’s San Pedro Prison”

  1. I tried doing this last year but failed. We had a group of seven people but were shot down by pretty much everyone there when we tried to get in. We started walking away and a guy approached us to see if we wanted in, and we said yes. The guy spoke perfect english and said he was from Virginia but has been in and out for drug reasons. He told us he could since he knew some people in there…he said it would cost a couple bucks a person entry and then tips for tours. We had no issue giving a couple bucks. He asked me to go with him since I was the only American to go sort it out with the guards. He walks up to a cop, they get in a conversation and says that he has to go fill out some paperwork for it. Walks off with the cop after I give him the $20 or so for the group. He shows back up after 5 minutes, says it’ll be 5 more. Never saw him again. It was only a couple bucks per person, so no real loss. Apparently this guy is known and does it to a bunch of groups, so just be warned. I found my group and they had assumed I had been robbed since I had been gone for 20 min or so.

    1. That’s a pretty strange story. The first day I tried getting in I waited by myself for around an hour hoping somebody like that would approach me for a tour. I think a main reason I got in was because I was just one person.

  2. Interesting post! I’m surprised they just let you in. How cool though! The one picture with the little huts reminds me of that TV series… what was it called? Prison Break, I think. One season the setting was a prison in South America and it kind of looked like a little city by itself as well.

  3. I read a book about an american being held at La Paz jail in Bolivia and they let tourists in to come and look around – is this the same place? It must have been incredible and yet terrifying – the thought at the back of your mind that you might not be able to get out again.

  4. Fascinating story. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to sneak in on my own, but it sounds like quite an experience. The book sounds interesting too, I’ll have to check that out. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I was lucky enough to visit this prison with my brother back in 2008. We got a couple of phone numbers from people we had met, called them up from the plaza outside the prison, and after trying for a day or so eventually got in. You have to hand your passport over to the guards at the door, which was a bit of a concern. We were shown around by a South African “Afrikaan” guy who hadn’t been charged with anything (as the Bolivian government couldn’t find a Spanish – Afrikaan translator) but was being kept in the prison anyway. This was not an enjoyable experience at the time, but was pretty adventurous and we are both glad we did it.

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