Thursday, 23 April 2009

San Pedro prison closes to tourism

News from Bolivia
: San Pedro Prison has closed its doors to tourism. It was only a matter of time. As I reported in the Guardian in January, the prison was allowing up to 50 backpackers enter through its iron gates every day for a bizarre tour that allowed them to try some of cocaine that was manufactured in makeshift factories inside. (Yes, you read that right.)

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 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!".

In the news report (above), the TV station presents the tourists as sneaky villains, hiding under jackets and running off while flipping the crew the bird. This isn't typical and I can only presume people were shouting accusations to get a reaction. None of backpackers I met there were sneaking out as if they'd done something wrong - it was all a big jolly for the most part. That was the disconcerting part.

The main concern for Bolivians, however was not the daytrippers, but the police and their evident involvement. "Who is watching the police?" asked an editorial in La Razon.

I emailed James to find out more. "As part of Evo's [the president] anti-corruption drive, the prison heads have been sacked and replaced. It's been common knowledge for years that a whole load of criminal activities have been run from inside the jail and there are some very rich prisoners in there as a result. A lot of this involves abuse of the local visitor system and even the families who live inside."

It wasn't looking good for Evo if the international media was becoming increasingly interested in the illegal goings on in San Pedro. And this was set to increase massively as Brad Pitt's San Pedro movie, Marching Powder, goes into production.

However, the most concerning part of this denouement is that during the "clean up" ordinary prisoners had their visitors' rights revoked for a day. A riot followed. According to reports, tear gas was used, at least 15 people were injured, and 80 children were evacuated.

Meanwhile, the backpackers have their pictures and exciting stories. Some of their money may have been put to good use helping those inside, but we'll never know for sure.

"I don't think tourist visits have restarted," James tells me. "Though there's always a few backpackers in the square and vicinity, probably curious just to see the prison as much as to try and get in."