San Pedro Prison in Bolivia has ceased tours for foreign visitors.

I regret my one missed opportunity. I’d been mildly obsessed with the La Paz prison for a couple of years before I arrived outside its gate and got turned away. That was July, 2008. I had read in Lonely Planet it was a piece of cake to get in and get a tour. Apparently not in my case. I surmise, that I had experienced the beginning of the end for La Paz’s most bizarre tourist attraction.

It’s definitely over now. This from yesterday’s Guardian;

It used to be one of South America’s most fabled tourist attractions. Celebrated as unique in the world, San Pedro in La Paz, Bolivia, was a prison like no other. Foreign tourists would pay bribes to enter, gawk, shop, dine and even do drugs. A sweeping crackdown has barred tourists from the complex, replaced corrupt guards and challenged bizarre practices which had become the stuff of lore.

Tours have never been officially recognised and the vagaries of securing visiting privileges for foreigners stems from the fact that prison guards have different rules/corruptions and relationships to outside ‘tour-guides’. Basically, foreigners had to be lucky or connected to get inside.

Flickr searches prove that “wide-eyed travellers” have visited in all the months since my failed attempt.

The reason for the end of this bizarre tourist ritual? Seemingly, tourists got too cocky and too brazen. The new prison warden ended the debacle. This was a peculiar decision (on first glance) given years of international coverage and tolerance by the authorities, but basically, everyone involved had become too comfortable – objectionably so – with the institution-turned-circus.

The group most guilty for giddy spectacle was of course the tourists. In February the self-titled “Wild Rover Group” posted this video.

And it was the tipping point. The video doesn’t show anything that wasn’t commonly known, but it spells it all out with clarity and (critically) to an unrestricted worldwide audience.

This thorough dissection of the events by a Bolivian source, explains;

In an irreverent tone they boasted about their tour, were seen laughing and enjoying it, and they filmed some of the cocaine manufactured inside, as well as the facilities, rooms, kitchen and other areas. Days later, tourists began to show up in record numbers at the Plaza across from the prison. This drew the attention of neighbors and the general population. There were too many and it was too obvious.

It is surprising that a single video should be the tipping point, especially after a decade of widely circulated photographs. Nevertheless, the circus could no longer be ignored, nor controlled.

Interest online was mirrored by interest on the ground. Tourists filled the square outside wishing to visit; such numbers could no longer be surreptitiously ghosted in the side-door.

Vicky Baker explains,

The tours have been run on and off for years, but this time the (totally unofficial) organisers pushed it too far. There was an increasing lack of discretion. Travellers were being allowed to take cameras in and were uploading pics on to flickr and videos on to YouTube (Were all prisoners asked permission about this?). Rumour had it that local tourist offices were offering tours under-the-table, while those that turned up at the door, like I did, found that money was exchanging hands in a sideroom on prison premises.

The prisoners leading the tours had become greedy. If they’d had any sense, they would have halted them on the six-month anniversary of the arrest of Leopoldo Fernández, a controversial ex-governor accused of genocide. That day inevitably brought protesting crowds and film crews. According to James Brunker, a photographer based in La Paz, when one of the film crews got wind of a tour group inside, they decided this was “far more interesting!”.

Here’s the local media shining a big spotlight on activities with long-overdue questioning and coverage of the tours. Foreigners reacting to the attentions, flipping off the camera and scampering away under jackets were only ever going to look bad!

Unrest

Governor, Jose Cabrera, is emphatic, “The prisoners have to understand that this is a penitentiary.”

The tourism, while exploitative, was a reliable source of revenue for the prisoners and their families. By shutting down the tours, incomes for over a 1,000 men, women and children was dragged out from under them.

San Pedro was/is indelibly tied to society outside. Family members come and go daily to bring goods and services to the self-made micro-economy. The decision to close the tours down was exacerbated by new restrictions on visiting privileges. Discord grew.

On March 26th at about 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon, what apparently began as a small discussion and fight escalated into an all out prisoner mutiny. Hundreds of police officers were sent in to control the situation. The police shot canisters of tear gas into the prison’s interior patio. Soon prisoners were scrambling up walls and onto the roof.

As the Bolivian news crews were present to film the hoards of foreign tourists in the square, they captured the three hours of unrest from start to finish. Families, including children, of the prisoners were caught in the tear gas clouds. Unfortunate scenes.

The riot was a predictable end point to the new warden’s crude (but probably) necessary shut-down of this dubious spectacle. Many Bolivians didn’t like the fact the nation’s biggest prison was a site of titillation for foreign visitors; many were understandably ashamed and angered.

Paradoxically, one of the factors that allowed mass visitation was the accommodation of family members to spend unlimited amounts of time with incarcerated husbands & fathers during daylight hours. The institution had a generous (and unAmerican) protocol for the relaxed coming and goings of non-inmates.

What Next?

Money and the necessities it brings are key to solving the tensions. According to a prisoner interviewed by La Rázon, “70% of the [250 peso] fee goes to the police and the people who organize the foreigners for the tours,” the rest being split up among prisoners. This monetary ecosystem may not have been fair but it was consistent.

The new warden has since negotiated and agreed new rules for San Pedro, presumably taking into account the stymied income for all inside. Time will tell. As an indication of how fragile authority is at the prison, the new warden has adopted a fast rotation of guards to prevent foreigners … the suggestion being, a guard needs only to get comfortable at his gate post before he can start manipulating bribes to get tourists in again.

I’ll leave you arguments for permanent closure of San Pedro to foreigners with the thoughts of two Bolivians;

This type of tourism contributes to a blatant abuse of prisoners’ rights and human rights in general. A handful of pesos from tourists is not a substitute for the government providing the inmates with basic food, shelter and medical care (and as many as 75% of prisoners in San Pedro are simply awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime). Thousands of pesos a day being poured into the prison via tourism serves mainly to maintain and sustain the system of corruption that governs the prison and turns its inmates into the rough equivalent of animals in a zoo.

and

Isn’t it possible to be more responsible? To be more respectful? When touring a foreign country must it be treated like a traveler’s playground with no regard for local inhabitants? Not to mention, is your own safety actually worth it? And what kind of message is being sent to those who are imprisoned? That they must pay for their crimes but foreigners can get away with illegal activities for Bs. 250 per tour?

True.

The Remains

The photographic legacy is wide and varied. Amateur snaps prevail here, here, here and here. Enthusiasts occasionally turn their skills, and professionals such as Hector Mediavilla have focused on cocaine manufacture and drug addiction in San Pedro Prison.

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