Ganglands, part IV: San Pedro prison

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

I’d arrived in La Paz at the end of a long assignment that had taken me all the way from Ecuador to the Bolivian capital. I heard that it was possible to visit San Pedro, one of the most infamous prisons in South America, and hustled up a commission from a leading international news magazine.

San Pedro turned out to be the most amazing little community I have ever visited but the story became one of the most nerve-wracking I’d ever write. The problem was that my story would never work without images and security had been tightened so there was no way I could smuggle my camera into the prison.

Instead I made a deal with my guide – a multiple killer who’d been the leader of Bolivia’s most powerful street gang – and we bribed the guards to smuggle some films in. I agreed to pay a hundred dollars for whatever images he could smuggle back out to me, and gave my phone number so that we could coordinate the delivery.

My contact called me several weeks later when I was back home in Madrid – from solitary confinement, so he said. Apparently the films were stolen before he even received them. In the end the magazine ran the article without my images. But I’d promised the payment anyway so when he called me again I got the address of a girlfriend to send the money to her in La Paz.

San Pedro prison offers a life of surprising luxury for those with cash and I was aware that a hundred dollars could potentially buy a lot of home comforts. (The best restaurant in the prison can provide a wonderful meal for $1.)

I sent the money as arranged, but am somehow dubious that – like the film – it ever arrived in his hands. The story was finally published with all names changed (including mine), but I’m left with the uneasy feeling that somewhere in a Bolivian prison a vicious psychopath is now brooding (mistakenly) on the fact that I owe him a hundred dollars.

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