Passing time in San Pedro..
01.06.2008 - 01.06.2008 25 °C
The guard smirked as he accepted my money. He stood up, snatched my passport from my outstretched hand and walked over to the gate. My palms began to sweat.
The evening before, after about 3 days of frantic searching, I´d found someone with a contact on the inside. I paid them 100Bs in advance and they instruced me to wait outside the main gate of the Iglesia San Pedro at 9.00 the following day.
The morning came and, eventually, a man in dark glasses and a hat walked up to me. By this point, I had been standing outside the church for about 10 minutes and I was starting to feel like the ethnic James Bond. Unfortunately for me, all this mysterious character wanted to know was when Mass was going to start. After an incredibly awkward conversation (involving a lot of shrugging, a nod and an exasperated ´Por favor!´), I carried on waiting..
Finally (i.e. about 30 seconds later), a malodorous Chilean man, clad in some severely lairy yellow trackies, strolled up and tapped me on the shoulder. He told me his name was Cristian and that he would be taking me to the prison and making the necessary introductions. His ´unique´ odour (he smelt of wee) didn´t inspire much confidence; he quickly proceeded to shatter what little remaining faith I had in him by revealing that he had just been released on parole after an 11 month sentence for drug trafficking. Then he bought me an orange juice and everything was cool again.
As we drank our juice, Cristian began to tell me about the chap who would be meeting me. Apparently, I was to have the good fortune to be shown around by the boss of the most notorious cocaine syndicate in Bolivia. Great. Minutes later, having bribed the guard on the door, the gate of San Pedro prison creaked open.
Standing on the other side of the gate was a small, fragile-looking man of about 50, with a hearing aid in his right ear. He nodded at Cristian and extended his index finger to me, beckoning me over. He shook my hand and, in near perfect English, introduced himself as Luis. He pulled up a chair and, with the niceties finished with, began to talk.
I will never forget the beginning of our conversation.
Luis: Pranav, my name is Luis Amado Pacheco Abraham. I am here because I was found guilty of trafficking drugs.
Me: A lot?
Luis: 4.2 metric tonnes of crystallised cocaine.
(If anyone is interested, you can have a look at this website to find out about the full extent of his various misdemeanours: http://www.geocities.com/corruptosdb/dea.htm ).
We talked for about half an hour about various things, including the Bolivian legal system (Luis is now a practising lawyer, having studied the law while in jail), football and the international drugs trade. Apparently, times are tough at the moment for the Latin American cocaine syndicates - Luis advised me to wait a couple of years before trying to start up my own cartel. (Only joking Mum..).
After we finished chatting, Luis stood up and said that he would like to show me around his ´section´ of the jail.
Basically, San Pedro is nothing like a Western jail. The rule of law doesn´t count for anything - all that matters is money. Inmates are forced to buy or rent their cells from other prisoners and to buy their own food for the duration of their stay. This means that drug lords, like Luis, live in high style (Luis´ ´cell´ consisted of 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, an office - complete with computer and internet - and a DVD room) and the poor share cramped cells with several other inmates. Unfortunately, cameras are forbidden, so I couldn´t take any photos, but you can find some on this website (about a book written by a British drug dealer who spent time in San Pedro): http://www.marchingpowder.com/content.php/12.html.
There are shops, restaurants and even pool tables within the jail, all run by prisoners desperately trying to scrape a living. The one thing that I couldn´t find was prison guards: Luis explained that the inmates make their own law (rapists and child molesters are often killed or forced to commit suicide - exactly like Sona, the fictional jail in Prison Break).
As far as I am concerned though, the most shocking thing about San Pedro was the fact that the jail was literally overrun with little kids. Extreme poverty forces these children to live with their fathers in jail (they are free to come and go as they please, and most go to school) but, according to Luis, many of them eventually end up being imprisoned in their own right. Sad as this is, I find it hardly surprising - what else can you expect to come from a childhood spent in the company of crackheads and murderers?
Luis and I continued to walk and eventually I ran out of time. Just before I left, I asked one further question - what was Luis´ biggest regret.
In response, he quoted a couplet by Borges, the Argentine poet:
"He cometido lo peor de los pecalos
Que un hombre puede cometer. No fui feliz"
("I have commited the worst sin that a man may commit. I was not happy.")