Bolivian Prison Monopoly: Social Structure, Cocaine Production & Cell Ownership inside San Pedro Prison, La Paz.

Securing income and getting on the property ladder are two things most people can find a struggle in normal society. Imagine then, being imprisoned in a third-world country and being encountering these issues as soon as you set foot through the prison gates. These are the challenges that a new inmate is faced with upon beginning a sentence in San Pedro prison, La Paz.

I first came across the name of San Pedro prison during my stay in a hostel in Puno, Peru. It was listed in a dated publication of the Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia under the ‘Things to do’ section alongside it’s location marked on a La Paz city map. Accompanying this were a few descriptive lines of text which made the reader aware of ‘unofficial’ prison tours and overnight stays – a rather interesting detail coming from such a renowned travel guide. Owing to the date of the book’s publication I assumed it wouldn’t be of much current interest.

I didn’t hear or see of San Pedro mentioned again until spending some time with another backpacker one morning in Salar de Uyuni. He mentioned the prison when speaking about his experience in La Paz and in the same sentence, spoke of a book that had been written about it. The book in question was titled ‘Marching Powder‘ and recorded the experience of a British cocaine trafficker named Thomas McFadden, arrested in the late 90’s in a sting at El Alto Airport and subsequently imprisoned in San Pedro. Marching Powder delves into his life inside San Pedro, exploring corruption, mass cocaine production, murder, torture, social structure and the open nature of the prison. With this insight it was impossible to ignore and upon return to La Paz a day later, I set out to see the prison first hand.

Anchored amongst a network of tight residential streets and with the main facade addressing a large and lively plaza, the location couldn’t be further from what you’d expect of a prison block. Built over a century ago, on first impression one could be forgiven for being completely oblivious to it’s true purpose. The only immediately identifiable characteristic to define it as a prison are the towering adobe walls, uninterrupted by windows or openings. No barbed wire, perimeter fencing or foot patrols.

Directly opposite the bustling plaza stand the prison gates welcoming the most bizarre scene. Instead of the firm ignorance of a heavy gate the entrance is a hive of activity, with people coming and going as if the prison were playing host to an end of season sale. A tired queue is formed of predominantly women and children waiting to enter the prison, remarkably they actually live within the walls and are queuing to return home after running daily errands.

Reminded of the dated Lonely Planet description I decided to see what access is still possible these years later. Not wanting to attract too much attention and thinking a direct approach was the least suspicious option I naively walked straight up to the gate, camera in hand. I managed to get within about a five meter radius before being assertively ushered away by one of the guards on duty at the door. The wrong side of six foot and a few shades too pale to blend in with the South American congregation clamouring for entrance. I was later to find out that San Pedro had a history of being caught out in the Bolivian media with Westerners departing after tours and are keen to avoid recurring speculation.

The prison entrance.

A queue forms for access via a side entrance.

The rear of the prison supporting small ‘quiosques’.

The main prison wall isn’t recessed from the main street in any way.

Succumbing easily to defeat I sat across the road on a bench with a view of the entrance. I’m not sure how much I actually wanted to enter a Bolivian prison anyway. I satisfied my curiosity with a spot of people watching and snuck a few photos. Photography isn’t strictly prohibited but it’s hard to take direct photos in the presence of people who are a victim of circumstance without feeling a tad voyeuristic. Throughout the time spent on the bench a number of prisoners left the gates and boarded a green transportation bus. Some pairs of prisoners were handcuffed together whilst other individuals were left to board at their own leisure, there were no more than around three guards present at the gate at any time. The procession of family members continued to and from the gate, women would arrive via public transport, cross the street and enter with their young children or shopping bags. It’s inconceivable for anyone out with the irregular Bolivian justice system to understand the arrangement here, but what I’d seen left many unanswered questions about a prison I’d only heard of a matter of days before.

I recently finished reading the book ‘Marching Powder’ and it lent some retrospect to what I’d seen outside San Pedro that day. Perhaps it was due to my first hand viewing but I struggled to put the book down until I’d finished it. Written by Australian backpacker Rusty Young, who attended a tour in the early 00’s and became a working acquaintance of Thomas McFadden in the year leading up to his release, it documents Thomas’ rollercoaster experience. From being beaten within an inch of his life to owning several cells, a restaurant and a shop inside San Pedro, ‘Marching Powder’ uncovers bribery and corruption within the Bolivian justice system whilst explaining the complex social structure of the world’s strangest prison.

Read ‘Marching Powder‘ by clicking below:

 

 

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High Expectations

High Expectations: A Visit to Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz

Club Bolivar vs LDU Quito
Copa Sudamericana, Second Round, 1st Leg.
Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz.
12.07.17

A visit to one of the highest football stadiums ever constructed was not something I had actually considered prior to my initial enquiry into football fixtures in La Paz. However with a six day stay booked in the city perched at one of the greatest altitudes of any in the world, I thought it best to try and seek out a match in the stadium previously seated in the midst of a FIFA debate due to it's elevation above sea level. A quick google detailed an upcoming encounter between Club Bolivar – Bolivia's most successful club of all time – and LDU Quito, travelling from Ecuador for the first leg of a Second Round tie in the Copa Sudamericana, South America's secondary club cup competition.

The infamous Estadio Hernando Siles and the Bolivian National Team had previously come under fire after being reportedly priviliged by an 'unfair advantage' when hosting international home games at the ground. To put into context just how considerable this advantage might be, a notable World Cup Qualifier with Argentina in 2009 conjured up a surprising 6-1 victory in favour of the Bolivians. More recently in 2013, in a 1-1 draw against the same opposition, Lionel Messi had appeared to throw up on the pitch at half-time whilst team-mates Javier Mascherano and Angel di Maria required the administration of additional oxygen from the medical team.

Constructed in 1931 at an altitude of 3,637 metres, Estadio Hernandes Siles has a spectator capacity of 41,143 making it the largest in Bolivia. Alongside the fact that it is nestled in the heart of the country's capital city, it makes an obvious home for the Bolivian national side. However in 2007, following numerous complaints from competing teams, FIFA introduced a ban on World Cup Qualifying matches being played above an elevation of 2,500 metres. Following strong protest from affected countries the ruling was revised to 3,000 metres, with special dispensation granted for Estadio Hernandes Siles. Since then Bolivian home ties have continued to be played at the venue.

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With such a storied history it was exciting to be attending a game at the stadium on a cold Wednesday evening in the middle of the Bolivian winter. True to their record as the most successful club in the country, Club Bolivar had secured the Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano top spot for the 27th time in their history at the end of last season. Their opponents Liga de Quito finished in a less fortunate tenth position after the first phase of their season in the Ecuadorian domestic league Primera A. The instance of meeting is the Copa Sudamericana, a secondary intercontinental knock out competition underneath the Copa Libertadores. Any effect of altitude won't hold up as an excuse for tonight's visitors with their home city of Quito also located in the Andean region at a height of 3000 metres.

With this in mind a competitive game of football was to be expected. In the vicinity of the ground a myriad of street vendors were peddling everything from pre-match snacks to apparently popular thin polystyrene sheets, which it later transpired were for additional comfort against the moulded plastic seats fixed loosely to the cold concrete structure. After aquiring a ticket acquired for 60Bs. (approximately £6.60) in the area behind the goals (Curva Sur), I headed inside between an unnerving number of armed police.

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Although no details were made available as to the final attendance, the match drew a passionate crowd with almost 3 sides largely full. Unallocated seating afforded the luxury of choice and I elected to sit near the back end of the lower tier, elevated above the fence and running track which isolates the playing surface. Curva Norte opposite held the heartiest assemblage of fans, identified by a display of large blue flags, banners and somewhere underneath a brass band, these are the most loyal Bolivar afficionados. Food and drink were in plentiful supply as ushers hurried about the terrace offering jelly and ice cream, freshly made sandwiches and hot coffee – better than queueing for 20 minutes over half-time for a pie and bovril!

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Football in Bolivia is as popular as elsewhere in South America, despite perhaps not being widely publicised as such, and the amount of families that appeared to be in attendance was pleasantly surprising. In a corner of the footballing globe yet to fall foul of astronomical ticket pricing and commercialisation it is great to see midweek entertainment available at a affordable price for all, hopefully it manages to continue that way for the forseeable future.

The on-pitch spectacle was a largely uneventful affair although at the same time an entertaining match. The style of play from both sides was very wide open and the match was almost played at the pace of a friendly, something which can probably be attributed to the size of the Hernando Siles pitch. Neither side dominated the early exchanges with a host of opportunities passed up, the best of which fell to Quito striker Hernán Barcos who couldn't quite take advantage of a free header to convert a well-placed delivery. Bolivar eventually took the initiative early in the second half and scored with a well-struck free kick from an unlikely angle, cue pandemonium in the stands. This settled the nerves of the home side and they managed to see out the remainder of the ninety minutes without too much trouble. Indeed they might even have doubled their advantage had wing-back Edemir Rodríguez managed to maintain composure after a rebound fell at his feet 8 yards from goal, his attempt scuffed wide of the mark with a near open goal gaping.

Interestingly it was more difficult than I'd imagined to accurately assess the standard in comparison to European football. There were a few flair players that caught the eye and this led to some clever and well-worked passages of play. The stand out performance was that of Bolivar's No.7, Gastón Sirino. Short in stature and with a low centre of gravity he showed a great turn of pace to lose defenders on more than one occasion prompting rousing excitement from the crowd. A mention also for his team-mate and fellow winger Juan Arce, scorer of the free kick and one of the most competent and experienced players on the ball, between the two of them they made the difference for Bolivar.

With the home victory wrapped up the hoards of satisfied fans spilled out of the Hernando Siles into the unpredictably steep and winding streets of the Miraflores neighborhood. The area was as lively as it had been before kick-off, if not more so. A quick stop at a kebab shop rounded off the matchday experience before descent through Parque Urbano Central where the midweek entertainment continues in the form of group dance and five a-side football, an extension of the main event showing a cultural enthusiasm truly unique to South America.

The return leg of the tie follows on the 2nd August, one which I'll definitely be keeping an eye on with hope of a Club Bolivar progression to the next round!

Vinicunca – Rainbow Mountain: The rapid growth of a new tourist destination.

Peru is a country reknowned for its picturesque tourist destinations. Boasting one of the 7 Wonders of the Modern World in the form of the archaelogical settlement of Machu Picchu, along with other attractions like the crevice of Colca Canyon and the floating islands of Lake Titicaca bordering neighbouring Bolivia, Peru has established itself as a must-visit destination for backpackers and holidaymakers alike. Many of these most famous attractions have gifted timeless page filler for tourist brochures and coffee table books, providing iconic images which have helped bolster the country’s now thriving tourist industry.

But alongside these established sites, a recently publicised geological anomaly has begun it’s rapid rise to the heirarchy of Peruvian tourism. Aided by the viral nature of modern social media, the breathtaking landscape of the affectionately named ‘Rainbow Mountain’ is the country’s newest tourist showpiece. Accessible from the nearby city of Cusco, and with an extensive collection of tour agencies offering day trips from there, Rainbow Mountain or Vinicunca, to give it it’s traditional name, has found itself a ‘must-see’ destination when visiting the area. With it’s reputation preceeding it, I embarked upon one of the advertised full-day tours in the week I spent staying in Cusco.

As a relatively new attraction, there was little information to be found online about the mountain itself, save a few reviews of different tour operators on TripAdvisor. The general concencus I gathered from the ones I read suggested that the hike was not a walk in the park and required a great deal of effort to reach the top. None of the reviews were particularly complimentary of any one tour company, so my girlfriend and I spent an afternoon gathering information from the different agents in Cusco to see which offered the best deal.

We settled on a company named Conde Travel, the operator we spoke with in store was very friendly and explained a lot to us in well-spoken English. At the price of S/.100 per person the tour included; 4:00am pick-up, breakfast, entrance to the park and lunch, returning at approximately 7:00pm. We found that the prices offered by the tour agencies were all in the same ballpark, any that teased a price of S/.90 required paid entrance to the park on arrival, so there was nothing to choose between in that respect.

With a slightly-later-than-billed pick up time of 5:20am we set off from Cusco. Fresh from a near hour and a half stand in the cold we were quite awake, and stayed so until our arrival at a small house where we were fed a welcome local breakfast of bread and pancakes. Sat outside, we were provided with Coca leaves and tea to help prepare us for the altitude. There was some debate amongst the group as to the actual height of the mountain, and several wild figures were banded around. We found out later from the tour guide that it does in fact rest at 5200 metres above sea level, which I have since discovered is greater than that of The Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps. I thought back to the reviews and questioned the decision to have worn the shorts that I had on.

A further 45 minutes in the van had us arrive at the base of the trail, a heady 4326 metres in altitude. A large gravel car park bordered by makeshift tents and plastic portaloo’s greeted us, in one corner there were two sets of goalposts, the beautiful game always welcome even in the most unlikely of places. The whole area had an overwhelming sense of temporariness. Indeed a lot of work appeared to be ongoing in forming a more grounded welcome, with locals wheeling barrows of gravel to form new pathways.

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 Always time for a kickabout

The opening of the mountain to guided tours in January 2016 created a window of opportunity for the Peruvian’s who call the surrounding area home. In years previous, the peak had lain under a carpet of snow, undisturbed by the hundreds of people who now tread it’s path daily. Adjustment in the global climate has made this venture possible, unearthing the magnificent palette of colours on the face and inviting the world to visit. In the surrounding tents and lining the route of the ascent locals are selling a number of stimulants to aid the trek, from Coca tea to M&Ms and Snickers, quite justified in cashing in on the hoards of tourists being unloaded on their doorstep.

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 Two women set out their stalls for the day

With entry pre-paid, we started on our way up the trail. It truly is a picture prefect landscape and every excuse was made to stop for a photo opportunity. Llamas and Alpacas graze against the backdrop of sheer rock faces climbing into the distance. The snow topped peak of the adjacent Ausengate Mountain stands proud against a lightly clouded sky. It is immediately apparent why the spike in popularity has been so sharp.
The climb itself presented an unexpected challenge. Despite having read about the effects of the altitude, I don’t think I quite understood the full extent until I experienced it. A few minutes of regular paced walking induces a shortage of breath and a heightened heart rate, forcing you to slow down. Add to this the rate of ascent, which in some places is fairly steep and you have the making of an ardous 6km slog to the top. A shrewd capitalisation sees locals dotted along the route at various intervals offering horses for rent, which a good number of people take them up on. An honest day’s work on the horse owner’s part, as they have to lead the horse to the summit and back down again!
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Roughly two and a half hours after setting off, we reached the top and along with a piercing wind and a massive drop in temperature, the prize of breathtaking views of both Rainbow Mountain and beyond. Despite the harsh cold, there were still resilient women and children selling goods camped behind dry stone walls. I managed to resist a celebratory bottle of the regional lager Cusquena, partly due to the headache I was now suffering. A rather brief explaination from our guide glossed over the cause of the multi-coloured surface which we were facing. Tectonic shift had forced up sedimentary layers, the colours of which were a result of the environmental conditions imposed upon them at the time they were exposed.

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A young girl battles the cold winds at the summit

We were allowed a 40 minute window for taking photos, which we gladly took advantage of. Frustratingly, it will take a better photographer than I to totally capture the magnitude of the beautiful and vast landscape that we looked upon. No matter how many pictures I took I couldn’t quite do it justice!

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Eilidh and I infront of the main attraction

 

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Views from the top

Retiring from the summit we retraced our path down the dusty slope. The majority of day tours operate similar hours and as a result we didn’t cross the path of anyone still making the climb. A far quiter and more relaxing descent followed with everyone setting their own pace.

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Ongoing development

This afforded me time to appreciate the effort that has gone into opening Rainbow Mountain up for tourism and also the ongoing work to accommodate for the influx or visitors. Small stone buildings are in the process of construction near the bottom, perhaps to be turned into a more permanent shop or toilet block. An abundance of promise lies on the horizon for the people who make a living here, perhaps it will have grown into a different community in five or ten years time. Although I can’t help but feel a slight shame for the way in which Rainbow Mountain has been subjected to drastic environmental alteration due developing global climate change. As a direct result of the current social and political landcape, a new tourist destination has been born.

 

If You Go:

https://www.condetraveladventures.com/en/

http://www.aboutcusco.com/

It is worth reading reviews of different tour agencies on TripAdvisor before you go. If you are planning to hike the mountain, the following items are recommended;

  • Suncream
  • Waterproof
  • Jumper or Jacket
  • Gloves
  • Coca Leaves
  • OxiShot (Oxygen canister sold in various shops around Cusco)
  • Snacks and water for the journey.

la Pasión Boquense

This article also published on the Buenos Aires blog on inbedwithmaradona.com and can be read here.

Saturday 10th June 2017

Announcing itself in a celebration of brightly coloured buildings, the neighbourhood of La Boca boasts an identity of tradition and cultural diversity. Arriving on foot, you find yourself in the heart of the district with almost no warning or expectation. It’s early Saturday afternoon, the street markets are bustling and dancers exhibiting the famous Argentine Tango begin their matinee performances in the cafes and bars. The most striking thing to note upon first visit, is the closeness of it all. Sidling between market stalls and up stairways into crowded shops, most of the tourist orientated merchandise is packed into two or three colourful, picturesque streets.

In this sense La Boca appears a typical tourist trap. Tango dancers with a wardrobe of costume lure passers by into posing for photos, plastic effigies of Pope Francis are wheeled out on street corners and a man who looks vaguely like Diego Maradona bounces a ball in a fake Argentina strip. But it is only natural for the people of the area to monetise what has become such an identifiable corner of Buenos Aires. It has much to say for itself, but what brought me here was the stadium which peaks behind the aged rooftops, La Bombanera, the home of Boca Juniors.

Museo de la Pasión Boquense is the title of the tour and museum package sold at the stadium. This includes a guided tour around the ground and access to an exhibition of items and interactive media which tell the story of Club Atletico Boca Juniors. I came as a football fan, to get a better perspective of the club and say I’d been to visit the stadium, but the experience provided a deeper understanding of the roots of the club and the signifcance it holds for the people who surround their lives with it.

For many in Argentina, football is treated as a way of life. This holds true for Boca fans, moreso than many. It’s the reason their rivalry with city counterparts River Plate, ‘el Superclásico’ is considered one of the most intense and dangerous in the world, it’s the reason their homes, businesses and lamposts within the stadium vicinity are painted in blue and yellow club colours, and it’s the reason the team are known and revered across world football today.

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‘In case you forget where you are, everything is painted as a reminder’

Ticket purchased, and with half an hour until the guided stadium tour began, there was time for a quick peruse of the museum beforehand. Drawing my attention was a dome shaped room with the appearance of a football displaying 360° video inside. It documented the journey of a young local playing in the shadow of the stadium who grows up to play for the first team. All filmed within the immediate vicinity of the ground, with the viewer placed as the subject of the story, it communicates the passion and desire that the club effects on it’s community from a young age.

The other exhibit which piqued my interest, was a large model of the traditional homes which overlook the docks only a few streets away from the stadium. It was poignant that football had no visible mention or suggestion here. It stands as homage to the people, industry and diversity which led to the formation of the club. Set against a dark night sky, small video projections lend life to the windows. Within them Tango dancers, a family eating dinner, people drinking in a bar. A snapshot of life before Boca Juniors. With large influx of European immigrants the dockland area was one of many borrowed influences. Specifically it were immigrants from Genoa who set about the foundation of a football club, hence the nickname ‘Xeneizes’ (Genoese) a nod to the clubs original founders.

Time arrived for the tour to begin. In a large group numbering around 40 people we were led from the museum through a concourse and into the lowest rows of seating in the ‘flat’ stand. The most recent notable upgrade, this stand was built in 1996 and consists mainly of VIP seating. In stark contrast to the other three surrounding sides of the stadium, which are cast in concrete and form a continous wrap around the pitchside, it stands alone, a vertical tower block-like presence unique to La Bombanera. Despite it’s comparitively low profile and unorthodox structure, it’s proximity to the pitch enhances the atmosphere within the stadium. Venturing up to the top a rather nausea-inducing experience for those with a dislike for heights.

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‘The touchline yards away from the closest row of seats.’

As the only English-speaking couple in a group of that size, we’d resigned ourselves to picking up on odd words during the tour in broken Spanish. However during the introduction the tour guide, Sabrina, asked around for anyone who would like it conducted in a different language. For the remainder of the tour she continued following us up with a one on one English synopsis after every meeting point, of which we were hugely appreciative.

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The next stop was the terracing behind the goal, as the lowest tier in the stadium, these tickets are the cheapest to obtain. It is also the section in which the most devoted fans can be found on a matchday, filling the air with noise and putting on a display of streamers, flags and banners synonymous with the legendary La Bombanera atmosphere. The steps closest to the playing surface actually lie around 2-3 feet below pitch level, meaning that the view here is one of the most restricted in the stadium in terms of actually watching the football. The view is further obscured by the tall chicken-wire fence which seperates the spectators from the players, when a goal is scored a mass rush towards the fence can be expected, with an ambitious few even scaling it as if attempting escape! No doubt a rather intimidating experience for those on the pitch.

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The tour was rounded off with a visit to the home dressing room, press area and a celebratory room with statues of club legends, amongst them Martin Palermo, Juan Román Riquelme and Diego Maradona. Funds for these were raised by fan contributions and testament is paid to each one in the form of their name inscribed on the plinth on which the statue stands. It shows the extent to which these players inspired the fan-base, that people were willing to donate money to have them immortalised in bronze. The tour ended on exiting this room, however no pressure was applied to for us leave the stadium. The opposing end of terracing left free to reign for photo opportunities, or sit and eat lunch with a view as we decided.

On leaving La Bombanera we headed back towards the throng of markets at the dock. Fresh from the Boca experience, I couldn’t resist a replica retro shirt. The collared Nike design of season 1997/98, worn by Diego Maradona in his last season at the club, one of many on display with local vendors. On a concrete square, separated from the world by rusting blue and yellow fencing, young locals are involved in a heated kick about. Perhaps one of them may become a future Boca star…

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