My solitary Sunday was absorbed by a prison tour around San Pedro Prison in La Paz. No, I wasn’t arrested for drugs or acts of public indecency, rather it was a straightforward tourist kinda thing.

There’s a guy, Fernando, English speaking, who’s been in the slammer here for 4 years for possessing 4 grams of cocaine, but he admits he’s actually been a drug dealer all his adult life.

He got busted and now serves his present 8 year sentence.

But he’s been organizing these prison tours with the help of the corrupt prison governor – who he pays off with tourist dollars to shorten his sentence; his final 4 years have been reduced to 1.5 years and decreasing as his bizarre prison tours continue.

The prison was once a vast nunnery but now it houses 1300 convicts, the atmosphere resembles a market, a high-walled ghetto of courtyards and separate blocks; where living depends on cash and your insider status.

This guy lived in the elite ghetto of lawyers gone wrong, mafia and drug barons busted.

They had cells – more like a row of hostel rooms around a series of balconies – decked out in whatever they could afford, TVs, waterbeds, computers, all paid off / thru the system. The richest guy in the prison was a mafia boss busted with 4 tons of coke, he lived on the top floor.

We waited at the prison’s stone-fort entrance, passed thru a metal detector and numerous armed guards, past lines of families, women with plaited hair wearing bowler hats, being searched for the visiting day, showed ID, then thru locked iron gates as this guy called out instructions from behind the bars on ‘how to enter’.

Inside and surrounded by half a dozen of ‘his security boys’, we paid the guards their fee.

Then ushered into another courtyard to begin our prison tour (strictly, no photos allowed).

For an hour we shown around, protected by an alert group of toughs, from block to block to see the circus.

It wasn’t a Hollywood movie settings of concrete block rows, cells and bars but a strange maze of rickety rooms and alleys and balconies and courtyards – some, with food kiosks set up by prisoners, fruit and veg stalls, others had card games going and shoe repairs, as small business were the name of survival inside.

I watched men talking with families, laughing with girlfriends, and kids wandering freely.

Many families were allowed to stay inside with their dads, kids went to school to return each night to prison!

Rooms were rented to prisoners and they often had to keep their families here rather than let them live on the street.

Those new arrivals who had no room or money became the servant of someone in exchange for a floor to sleep.

Food was free but the moneyed prisoners never ate it because it was drugged (with sedatives to keep the calm; I watched zombies wait in line to eat; this food guaranteed their siesta). Instead most cooked or ate at one of the section kiosks.

The prisoners ran the prison inside.

No guards dared enter, they only patrolled the streets and the walls outside.

Everything was available, and apart from food and the standard commodities, there was booze, cocaine, grass, women – wives, pros, girlfriends were able to enter and stay overnight, for a price. (The 1 hour day tour cost $US10; the overnight, your-own-cell, sex & substance inclusive package started at $100. I was very tempted but decided no: too much potential for huge problems).

So why could this guy operate so easily: he was number 7 in the hierarchy of 8 who ran the prison, and one of his friends who accompanied us was the number one – a real mafia mean-looker who was responsible for punishment, especially overseeing the newly arrived rapists.

They outlined the torture methods …

Do you want to hear about it? … Probably not.

Anyway, basically these guys got everything they needed plus time off their sentences for doing this business while the Governor of the prison got rich. Both men had long scars down the throats and face …

We felt safe there and it was a family / circus atmosphere but it was obvious the heat packed on when visiting was over. Accidents and suicides, as he put it – or rather, murders happened often, and weekly, especially over gambling debts.

… when a rapist arrived into the system he was put in a concrete pool in the courtyard where for some time he would be abused, have food, shit, piss thrown over him, then beaten across the bare arse, 20 – 30 times with thick, plastic-coated lead cables torn from the prison walls – apparently, most victims screamed for mercy after 3 lashes, and following the lashings super-hot red chillies were then crushed and stuffed on and up his bleeding butt.

The prison tour ended with the hard-smacking of this thick, brutal wire on a concrete wall.  Thud ! Thud !

Thud …

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