The Cocaine Pinata and Prison

I have never been one for dabbling in the substances that have been deemed by certain governments harmful to society and given an illegal status. But sometimes on your way through life certain opportunities arise and you feel the need to take advantage of them or you end up on the bandwagon of judging other people without actually knowing what you are judging them for.

I had enjoyed my time in Bolivia and thought La Paz was a great city to hang around in and make the most of the extra excursions that you could do from there as day trips. I was still travelling with Finn, who I had met up with in Peru, and being Irish he was very keen to head out on the town for St Patricks Day. As he knew no-one else in the town I went along to keep him company and thought that I would be getting an early night once he had met some new drinking buddies.

We got bored of the usual pub culture of Paddies day and after much discussion we decided we would head to the Bar 36 that we had heard so much about. Bar 36 was not like any other bar that you will ever see, is it dubbed ‘The Cocaine bar’ for a reason.

We went outside to get a taxi and after asking a few drivers to take us there none of them knew where it was, we had been told that every driver knew it. Now with so many drivers not knowing it we had a dilemma of wondering how we could translate to them the exact type of bar we were heading for without them calling the police.

The last Taxi we spoke to seemed honest so we jumped in and pointed in the general direction of the bar and hoped that on the way he would recall where it was. He had no idea where it was and after mentioning that is a ‘special’ bar just for tourist’s he still had no idea. In the end I just went for broke and told him, in my best Spanglish, that it was the bar where all the tourists go to get cocaine! He thought for a minute and did not know the bar but pulled out his phone and said he would have cocaine for us in 5mins.

We declined as we didn’t want cocaine we just wanted to see and experience this unique bar, well I did anyway. We knew the general location of the bar and got the driver to drop us there and thought we could find it ourselves. The area we were in was very sketchy and we were getting worried after 10mins that maybe we should not be there alone when a car drove past and slammed on its brakes. At first we thought it was a mugging on the way but instead a local popped his head out the back and asked if we were heading for Bar 36. We agreed and asked how he knew and he replied,

‘Why else would you be in this area alone at this time of night’

He dropped us at the front door of a shed that had no signs and no real entrance, we knocked on the big metal door and waited. A little hatch opened up at the base of the door and asked what we wanted. We didn’t know what we wanted so we just murmured,

‘Can we come in?’

The head popped out and had a look around then opened the gate and sent us through. The bar seemed like any other bar inside and was quite empty. We sat down on some sofas and I went up to get two very overpriced beers for us to make a start on. A few minutes later a guy came over, starting a chat with us and proceeding to ask if we would like to buy some cocaine. Finn put his head down and said that he would like some if that was OK. The guy laughed and said,

‘Of course it’s OK, why else would you be here’

He went on to tell us the prices of the substance and the quality. A gram of the average stuff was $10 and the excellent stuff was $13. Finn decided on the average stuff and it was bought to us wrapped in a little bit of plastic with a Mozart CD case. I had thought I was only going to keep Finn company there until he met some other people and then go home. After he offered me a line I decided that perhaps I should make up my own mind as to what is good and bad for us as people and not just what I hear about on the news.

The bar started to fill up and it was pleasing to see that it was only us ‘Gringos’ in there. No locals were allowed and I guess this kept the police happy and meant less hassle for them getting their little kickbacks. The kickbacks must have been a decent amount as I could never understand why they didn’t raid the place and ask everyone for $100 or face being arrested! Who would ever argue with them in that situation?

At midnight to celebrate a birthday the staff tied up a Piñata and let the Birthday boy swing away, after a few minutes the Piñata busted open and out poured 13 little packets of Cocaine onto the floor. About 20 of the 70 people now in the bar swarmed and started pushing and fighting over it. I found this quite sad as it only cost $10 to buy yet they fought for it like you would imagine junkies in the street doing. One guy on our table returned with 5 grams to share.

My night ended 9 hours later at 8am after doing much of the stuff I have never done since, well until we visited the prison a few hours later anyway. Outside the bar we had no idea where to go and just headed for what seemed like the centre of the city, with paranoia the whole way that people knew where we had been and what we had been doing. I was especially nervous every time we passed the police as I did not have any sunglasses to disguise the state of my eyes.

We got back to the hostel safely and after 2 hours in bed I realised that with a heartbeat like I had there was no way I was getting any sleep so I went downstairs to check my emails. I had discussed the night before with two Aussie girls about trying to get into San Pedro Prison, the prison featured in the famous book Marching Powder, for a visit. I had received an email from one of the girls and she said that the prison tour was a GO and that I needed to go and by some cigarettes and toothpaste as gifts and to be at the gates at 1pm.

I met the girls there and was a little nervous as to what would happen next. The visit is highly illegal and only happens because greedy prison guards smuggle you in for a share of the money you pay to one of the prisoners. The ‘friend’ that we were going to visit this day was a really nice South African guy who, down on his luck, had started to be a mule for drug lords in his country and eventually got caught in Bolivia. He was locked up for 3 years, and had served 2 by the time we arrived.

We were told that we had to wait another 45mins for the first group to leave so we headed for a coffee and waited. On return to the prison everything was very easy and very efficient, all we had to do was show our passports and receive a smiley face stamp on our wrists that differentiated us from the inmates. That was all it took and then the gates were opened and we met our ‘friend’ Adam, who also closed the gate as we left because the guards had walked off and forgotten to do it.

We were now inside the prison and amongst the inmates with no protection apart from Adam who would make sure we were not harmed. Money goes a long way in there and the $20 we each paid was split amongst the guards and the inmates that we met along the way. It was this payment that stopped us being in danger as no-one would mess with the guys bringing in so much cash for them every day, well that is what we hoped anyway. Should something have gone wrong I hate to think what would have happened as officially we were never there.

We went upstairs to the apartment owned by Adams Friend, a Portuguese guy who was locked up for a second time in a different country for drug running. The prison is separated into different sections and we were in the wealthy section. Back in the late 80’s when a lot of very rich Colombian drug lords were being arrested they did a deal with the government where they would pay a price to live in the prison and have their own luxury section and their own apartment style cells that they would buy and sell amongst themselves. One guy offered to pay Bolivia’s $5 billion dollar national debt if he was released under house arrest but they refused.

The cells ranged from cramped one rooms to a very spacious 3 story apartment with roof terrace. The man that owned this one still ran his business from inside and would smuggle out his work on USB sticks hidden inside Children’s backpacks as they left for school. Yep, children live in the prison too. Some people were too poor to afford to buy a cell in prison and to have a home for their families outside so they would move their families inside the prison with them. The children that left through the gates for school each morning were used to smuggle things out, including the cocaine that they manufactured inside.

As we arrived to the first cell Adam asked us what we would like him to get us, beer, whisky, burger and chips or maybe cocaine. We saw this as an opportunity not to be missed and ordered a gram of their finest for $3! At that price we all gave a look of

‘Should we try smuggling that back home’

But knew we would be mad if we did.

While we waited for our order to arrive another South African guy took us on a tour of the prison. We first saw the restaurants where people eat, as no food is provided inside for them, and then to solitary confinement where again, no food is provided and you have to rely on friends you have paid earlier to bring you your meals or you starve. We next went up the very small staircases and past children playing board games and into the ‘Crack Town’ of San Pedro.

As we passed cells there were people smoking their pipes and getting high alongside kids sleeping. We stopped at the cell of a Canadian guy who had been locked up for 12 months for crack possession. It was a weird story from this guy as he told us that he was a rock climber in Canada who owned two businesses and then smoked crack one day and fell in love. He sold up everything he had and took the first flight south and ended up in Bolivia to continue with his new passion.

He had been there for a few months and was arrested after a local snitch had raped one of his friends and was worried the Canadian would come and get him and instead he reported him to the cops for possession. His house was raided by the SWAT police of La Paz and around 20 others in the middle of the night and he was sentenced to a year for the 2 grams of crack they found there. Yet here we were having the same amount of Cocaine where he was serving his sentence. Brilliant!

The man went on to tell us that the snitch had since been sentenced to prison and was being made to suffer everyday he was there. He told us that on the day he arrived he paid some guys to beat him up and put him in hospital, 2 weeks later when he got out they did the same and he went straight back to hospital. The snitch was in hospital for the third straight time and the Canadian told us that he will keep going to hospital for the length of his sentence and on the day he is to be released the guys are going to kill him, he had already paid for it all to happen. I asked what exactly they did to the guy to put him in hospital and all he would say was that,

‘After the first attack let’s just say that he will never be able to have children! He is a snitch anyway, prisoners hate him and the cops hate him so he deserves it’

We were told that since being in prison Mr Canada had bought 3 cells to rent out and two restaurants and lived a very comfortable life there, he then lit up his crack pipe while his Bolivian girlfriend and her child ate their lunch next to him.

As we left the cell we met another South African guy outside. At the time I was wearing my billabong hoody and this guy took a real shine to it. After some banter about him wanting it and me giving it to him with me always smiling and saying ‘next time’ the guy snapped and looked me in the eye and said,

‘No seriously, I want it and I am going to have it’

I knew that if he was serious I would have no choice but to let him have it and when I said it was a fake he knew it was genuine and wanted it even more. Our guide had to step in the middle of us and push the other guy away then usher us all back to the main cell we used as a base. The guy was a crack addict and knew that he had nothing to lose by taking my hoody but our guide knew that the beating, at minimum, he would get by making the profitable tours seems dangerous would not be good for him.

It was a surreal experience being inside the prison and chatting with all the inmates from varied countries, most of them were long term drug runners that said the only reason they didn’t escape was so they wouldn’t  get an Interpol record as they wanted to continue the business when they left. They gave us the example of one guy who put out the rubbish one night and returned to find the guards had closed the metal door behind him, he begged to get back in but the guards just told him that visiting time was over and he would have to come back tomorrow. After 10mins of begging they eventually looked his name up on the inmate list and realised that they would have to let him back in.

After 3 hours there we were being hassled by the Chief Guard to leave but managed to stay for another hour and watch the inmates taking photos and using their laptops and mobile phones to call friends or arrange deliveries of drugs to the outside world.  The tours stopped not long after we went in which has become a trend, they get too popular and get shut down by the warden only to start up again with a new deal negotiated with the guards a few months later.

The Canadian man had told us that he was writing a book called ‘The Love Letter’, I have kept a look out for it but it has never appeared. He told us that after being released from prison he was buying a one way ticket to Laos to smoke himself to death in an opium den, he’d had enough of this life and wanted to see if there was another one waiting to be enjoyed. He may have succeeded before he ever managed to finish his story.

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