The author – left, with beard – enjoying a dinner party inside the walls of La Paz
To the disappointment of many of the more adventurous backpackers on South America’s "Gringo trail", the illegal tours of La Paz’s Cocaine Prison were supposedly brought to an abrupt end in 2009. The prison's infamous status germinated from the book Marching Powder, which was written by Australian author Rusty Young and tells the story of ex-drug smuggler Thomas McFadden, who was incarcerated with La Paz's bizarre and once enigmatic inmate community. The book, which is responsible for bringing the prison to the forefront of media attention in Bolivia – and, allegedly, for bringing an end to the drug tourism that took place inside its walls – is now being made into a Brad Pitt-directed film.
Contrary to popular belief, it is still possible to visit and even to have a long night of debauchery within La Paz. In February this year, I found this out the hard way.
During my stay in Bolivia, I encountered a fellow English traveller who had settled there. He told me that to subsidise his own living costs he had started selling cocaine through associates of one of the prison's more influential inmates. To my surprise, my new compadre also claimed to have access to La Paz whenever he wished. The entry price was 400 Bolivianos (£40), including the cost of bribing the prisons guards. The day following this revelation, “Fred” and I waited outside the prison’s entrance for a guard to come out and usher us in.
Eventually the call came through and we walked in to the registration area through the Plaza entrance. We were thoroughly searched, passport numbers and names were taken, and money changed hands. The heavy gate to the prison courtyard was unlocked and we walked through, out onto the basketball courts. Immediately I observed a group of young children and equally unexpected Coca Cola posters and Coca Cola-sponsored chairs and tables; niche advertising, if ever you saw it. Naturally, we drew a lot of attention very quickly – we were the only white English guys in sight – but were promptly greeted by a friendly man in his mid-forties with a wiry frame and well-groomed goatee. Despite his stature, he walked with an air of authority.
Smiling, he introduced himself in perfect English and led us up the inner courtyard stairs into a nicely furnished room with a TV and PlayStation. It was his bedroom, he explained. Fred made the exchange he'd come to make, and we sat a while longer in order to chat and share stories. The man was of Mexican origin, the son of a drug lord from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel; not one renowned for its tenderness. (The Sinaloa are considered by US intelligence services to be the most powerful crime syndicate in the world.) Our host spoke English – and Spanish, French, Portuguese and Mandarin. Like 75 percent of the prison’s population he was serving time for a drug offence, having been caught at the Bolivian border with 40kg of cocaine. But, being such a powerful figure within the prison, he had no wish to leave. “I can leave, but why would I? In here, I am King." He explained how “escape would not be demanding” but considering his freedoms (including the freedom to be escorted into town to meet women) he was perfectly happy to stay put.
Feeling particularly conversational, I began sharing stories of my own. After one such story he took a long look at me, and explained that he was happy to host a tourist who didn’t seem intimidated by him. It was then that he invited me back to the prison for a dinner party. It had been a couple of years since an overnight party with tourists had been possible, but he explained that if I was able and willing, he would arrange it, with both guards and goods at his expense. It was not an experience I would ever be able to forgive myself for missing.
Two days later Fred, a second companion and I awaited the call from the Plaza de San Pedro, unable to shake off the nagging feeling that the plan might be a bad one. But we waited, taking care not to be seen. The daytime family visits had been wound up at 9PM, so we weren't sure how the guards would take to three gringos trying to wangle their way in illegally. At about 11.30PM, after a two-hour delay, we were ushered in by a nervous guard. We were led through a small network of damp alleys that smelt like rot and shit to a small ladder leading up into a brightly lit room with a large round table and soundsystem. Notably, this room had a very clean private bathroom. “Welcome, I’m so glad you could make it,” declared our host. Again, I felt the impressive charisma of our first encounter.
Including Fred and my companion, there were nine. The others were inmates. We were greeted warmly and sat down around the table. The “dinner party” was arguably less of a dinner party and more of an ungodly mashup. With liquor and blow passing freely, things began to get loud and heated. Our host grabbed the mirror off the wall and slammed it on the table before flinging the contents of a large bag of cocaine over its surface. When this had been finished, he disappeared down the ladder and returned with a bag of blow the size of an onion and proceeded to run around the table gracelessly pushing it up people's noses and shouting “SNIIIIIIIIFF!” Many people's faces were completely covered in cocaine. It was a lot more druggy than your average dinner party.
I asked him about the devil tattoos covering his arms and chest and he responded that he was “one with the devil” and that it had been precisely this pact that had kept him alive, despite many attempts on his life. He shared a few brutal stories; I laughed and told him to stop with the act, telling him it was perfectly obvious to me that he was a “lover”, not a violent man at heart – rather one who'd been influenced by his situation. To try to understand his influences, I asked him about his family.
He paused, took a large line of cocaine and began to unveil his past. He explained that his dad – a "ruthless bastard" had always been his role model. He told me that when he dies, he wants to be incinerated in his Mustang Bullitt, which was the first car he ever owned. He said that his mother only beat him a few times but when she did, she hospitalised him. He then talked about his own kids. "My daughter is a mean bitch," he said. "She will take over the business, not my sons."
He then told a story that may or may not have been true. Was it an anecdote, or a fable?
“In my business you need to be violent but the thing that surprised me was when I began to enjoy it," he explained. "One day I opened my door to find a good friend pointing a gun at my head. He had been sent to kill me but he couldn’t do it. I looked him in the eye and told him to put the gun down and talk to me. We talked, he cried, and he told me who it was that had sent him – then I surprised myself and tortured him for three days. This was when I found my love for violence."
I prayed to god that it was a fable.
At 6.30AM, chilled to the core, we attempted to leave. By unfortunate coincidence there was a police conference due to take place at that time and we were forced to hide in a corner by the gate that led into the reception area while all the attendees passed by. We missed the guard change and found ourselves confronted by an un-bribed guard. Upon realising what had happened, the new guard seemed very distressed and the prospect of being stuck in the prison a while longer started dawning on me. I could hear our host and the guard having a heated debate. Once our host had managed to explain to the guard the precarious position he was now in, we were ushered out as quickly as possible.
My companion and I said bye to Fred, before putting some distance between us and the prison. After sitting in silence for a while I turned to my friend and asked that we leave La Paz the next day. We sat a while longer in unspoken agreement.