Bolivia with a pinch of salt


I was woken by a sharp “tap tap” on the car window. The door suddenly opened and a rifle was pointed into the vehicle. It was a fair indication to get out. I scrambled from the Jeep and saw our driver arguing in Spanish with a soldier with a rather large gun.

“They are looking for drugs” the driver said. “This is popular route for drug smugglers”.

My heart skipped a beat. Thanks for warning!

It was only a few days before that I had visited San Pedro the infamous Bolivian prison in La Paz. We toured a part of the prison with a notorious drug trafficker “Stuart” with long wiry hair who looked like Willy Nelson. It was here we learnt of the corruption, bribery and injustice of the Bolivian legal and law enforcement system.

Our small group tour had been stopped on the edge of the Salt Plains in the south west of the country. The Salar de Uyuni area is a strange world of eerie hallucinogenic salt deserts littered with cactus islands, spurting geysers, coloured lagoons, volcanos, hot springs, bizarre rock formations and unique wildlife. It’s popular with tourists but also with drug mules (apparently)!

Even though it was after midnight it was not dark. The moon was full and the light reflected off the salt plain which added to the eerie atmosphere. I began to fear the worst. Covered by a few meters of salt crust the flats could easily conceal the bodies of a few naïve backpackers.

My next thought was that the police would plant some cocaine, arrest me for drug trafficking and I would end up living alongside Stuart for the rest of my life. Another scenario was that we would have to bribe them which in turn could also put me in hot water. San Pedro was not a place I wanted to spend any more time and Stuart was not the kind of guy I wanted to be cell mates with.

San Pedro was exposed to the world when Rusty Young a Sydney lawyer travelling through South America visited Thomas Mcfadden a small-time drug smuggler. McFadden an Englishman was convicted of cocaine trafficking by a Bolivian court in 1995. He spent nearly five years in San Pedro and began conducting illegal backpacker tours of the prison. Young lived in McFadden’s cell for 3 months and later wrote Marching Powder based on the compelling story of Mcfaddens time in the notorious jail.

The prison tours continued to thrive amongst backpackers under the guidance of other inmates such as Stuart until they were recently banned.

San Pedro is not your average penal institution. On arrival the inmates are required to purchase their own cell. Each section has its own hotel-style rating. The wealthier prisoners like Stuart can afford to live in the five star sections in apartment-style accommodation, with all modern conveniences.

However, not everyone can afford such luxury. The majority of prisoners are extremely poor and are forced to live in atrocious conditions.

The cells in the other sections are more like what one would expect in a third world prison. The poorest inmates live in dirty hovels, with numerous inmates crowded into one cell. Stuart stressed that “outsiders” wouldn’t last a minute in these sections where violence, drugs and corruption are part of daily life.

In addition to purchasing their own cells, prisoners must cook their own food, or eat at one of the many restaurants inside the prison, owned and run by the inmates themselves.

Surprisingly families also live in the prison with the inmates. Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America so, for many women and children, living in prison is the only way of ensuring their family stays together. During the day the women are released to bring food and supplies to the prison and the children are free to attend school.

It’s obvious that San Pedro is one of the craziest penal system in the world!

Back on the Salt Plain and I was feeling increasingly nervous about being stopped in a foreign country at night in a remote area for a random drug search.

The soldiers lined us up while they searched our bags with a sniffer dog joining in the hunt. The wait was agonising. To my surprise nothing was found or planted and we were sent on our merry way. We were out of trouble and just like Willy Nelson – I couldn’t wait to “get back on the road again”.

C Sheather

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