by Barbara Roy
It is well known to my friends and family that I love to travel. Areas of a city or country that interest me the most are usually off the beaten path. Like a fireman that runs into a fire instead of away, I investigate and sometimes stay in areas that most travelers avoid. My trip to La Paz Bolivia was one of those times.
Bolivia is a beautiful country in South America which spans the Andes mountains, the Atacama Desert and the Amazon Basin rainforest. The people who’s heritage vary from the old Inca Empire, independent tribes and from the Spanish colonials. Beautiful country, beautiful and colorful happy people.
I had heard about the famous San Pedro Penitentiary in La Paz and wanted to learn more. As instructed I waited with a small group in a park in front of the 25 foot wall prison wall. When the metal gates opened the group was met by several prison guards who directed us to 15 x 20 ft stark room, our passports were taken and stored for the duration of visit. As we moved into the courtyard of the prison we were met by Freddie, a convict who was to be our body guard. Freddie in turn introduced us to his body guard a man called Rubin, all the men have one or more alias names.
There are no guards in the prison itself so we wandered among the worst of the worst. It was stated that we would visit different neighborhoods which defined “status” among the inmates.
If you were in the “rich” section you might have a TV, stereo, a kitchen and even two bedrooms. The arrangement can easily accommodate a family, which is allowed, and many men live as a family unit. The children who live within the prison go to school daily, catching the bus in front of the park outside the gates.
The youngsters were well dressed, orderly and very friendly. In the first neighborhood visited it was called “Five Star” area. The men had literally drawn five stars on the cement wall and there was two story “apartments.” For $3,000 you could buy one of the “penthouses” but to be certain it’s not a penthouse as we think of one. Many men who owned apartments opened a business on the main floor and lived up on the second floor in a loft.
The door key to these apartments is kept by the owner and the guards do not have access unless the inmate is home. Interesting to me was the fact the prisoners locked their own doors at night to protect their possessions as well as themselves from other inmates.
A tour of the “Four Star” neighborhood was interesting and informative. An apartment in this section sold for $2,000 for life and if a prisoner was released he put an ad on the bulletin board alerting others to it’s availability. The prison had about 2,000 prisoners but a population of about 3,000 if you include wives and children. A basketball court and other children’s activities can be seen through this neighborhood. Drug dealers make up the largest percentage of inmates, understandable when you consider that Bolivia is the largest producer of the coca leaves used for cocaine.
Our guide Freddie informed us that he is a cocaine dealer and a loan shark.
We next visited the poorest section which was Freddie’s neighborhood. He tells us that this is where the “vampires” live. A vampire is a drug addict who has no money, usually young and sleeps the day away. Since this neighborhood has no street lights at night, it becomes a crime scene where people are taken advantage of, yes even in prison there is a crime area.
There is an active cocaine business taking place in this prison and Freddie was comfortable talking about the various steps that it took in order to get this “product” ready for export. Freddie states that he does not use this drug while in prison since he has no friends and is afraid that he would be lulled into a stupor and taken advantage of. Freddie was set to be released from prison within a few months so I asked about his plans for the future. He mentioned that his family had encouraged him to return to his home town and work with them in their restaurant. He didn’t find this appealing or lucrative so he would continue with his cocaine business, meaning this friendly young man would lead a life of crime. It was quite a life experience visiting La Paz although this is one tour that will probably will not attract many.
Barbara Roy is the President of Naples Chapter Circumnavigators Club and invites world travelers interested in membership to contact her. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.