prison break-in. san pedro.


‘you going to try to sneak into the prison?’ asked the guy at the pub a few months back in Colombia. I had no idea what he was talking about. ‘you’ve not read Marching Powder yet?!’ he asked, as if it was something required to know before going. I had not, but after his short description of this place – a city-within-a-city, no guards, a place where you have to buy your own cell, can set up any type of shop, restaurant or cocaine production team – I decided that yes, I would indeed sneak in. I had time on my hands and from the sounds of it, Bolivia was a pretty affordable place to do so. from the research I could find – it was split. half the people claimed that ever since Brad Pitt’s film company picked up the rights to the book, the Bolivian government has completely shut down a tour of San Pedro. the other half said ‘you can, but it will be tricky’. I decided to get involved with the tricky – if it was bribing a few policemen, then I’d do it. if it was finding some of the old inmates that hung around the park and snuck you in – claiming to be a family member of someone on the inside, then I’d do that. time – as stated – I had.

day 01

I obviously wasn’t the only one with a plan and the fact that there were more than 3 groups of obviously non-Bolivians hanging around with their Jansport backpacks told me that this couldn’t be a good thing. how in the world these dumb Australians thought they could pass off as family members in their group of 5 was beyond me – but then again, Aussie’s are well know for not planning much of anything. I saw another group huddled around a man talking quite animatedly and decided to eavesdrop:

‘he says he’ll call me back, but I know know…’ he was explaining with one hand, the other on a cheap mobile phone.

‘you getting people in?’ I asked, with an air of I’m-alone-and-have-money.

‘we’re trying’ came the strong South African accent, ‘but it’s hard. there was a big raid yesterday and the police aren’t letting anyone through today… maybe check back tomorrow, yeah?’

‘what about New York Dave?’ I asked, pleased with my own online research, finding out about a former inmate who also gave tours.

‘New York Dave?!’ he laughed. ‘what do you know about him?’

‘he can get people in’.

‘no. he’ll say so, and then run off around the corner with your money, yeah? he’s a fucker, this guy.’


‘I should check back tomorrow, then?’ I asked him.

‘yes, bro. come see me same time tomorrow and we’ll make sure you get inside.’

day 02

it rained heavily all day, so I didn’t go.

day 03

‘my friend, I’m so sorry I didn’t come yesterday!’ said the South African, who’s name was Daniel. ‘you know, I live a long ways away, and the rain was too much for the bus. but this is for you’.

I was handed an empty pack of gum, with an ounce of cocaine in the bottom.

nice guy.

I chose not to tell him I hadn’t shown up either.

‘let’s go around the back – I have a friend who owes me a favor and he’ll tell the guards to open up the door on the side of the jail.’

and so we did. on the way he told me to not say a word, even if spoken to. he would do the talking. not a word, he kept emphasizing. we got to the gate and it was opened for him, I tried to walk in as well and it was slammed shut. a few minutes later, he came back out.

‘that woman is a bitch, she hates everyone. let’s try again tomorrow when she’s not working.’

day 04

Daniel wasn’t in the park – I checked back every few hours. on the last visit, I did see a short, bald, heavily-tattooed and barefoot man… New York Dave.

‘NEW YORK!’ I shouted in my best borrowed Brooklyn accent.

‘yo, man!’ he said, giving me a hug. ‘when was the last time I saw you?’

ummm – never.

the glaze in his eyes told me all I needed to. he was a junkie, and now was a parasite. but he was my only lead and I was getting tired of coming back to this park everyday.

‘you getting me in or what?’ I said.

‘yeah, man – it’ll be tricky, but yeah… first, we got to give the guards on the side entrance some money’.

[right… lemme stop right here and explain something. I knew I was about to be had. after what Daniel told me, I had gone home and looked up his scheme. I knew what was about to happen and I told myself that I would limit my bribes to $20, if for no other reason than to have a story. so I do hope you’re enjoying this…]


‘how much?’ I asked.

he told me the equivalent of $5. I handed it over to him and we walked back to the door I had already seen the day before. it opened up and I saw the same horrible women behind a steel desk. New York Dave spoke to her and she shook her head, pointing for him to leave and scowling at me.

‘okay, okay… no problem, man. she just said we need to get a form from the police station first’.

you’re so full of shit, but I’m enjoying this.

‘where’s that?’

‘just around the corner.’

and so we walked, he told me to stay back so the police didn’t see me. I handed him $5 more for the ‘processing fee’ and he disappeared into the police station. 5 seconds later, he came back out:

‘they said we need a stamp, man.’

ha. nice.

‘where do we get that?’

‘the main station – not too far from here.’

and so we walked some more.

‘you’re not gonna fuck me around, right?’ I asked him. ‘you wouldn’t do that to another New York brother, would ya?’

‘no way, man! look, if I don’t get you in, I’ll give your money back.’

I knew he wouldn’t – saliva coming out of his mouth every time he spoke, his feet with their own leathery bottoms. but again – it was fun, simply because I knew it was coming.

‘okay, stay here – don’t follow me’ he said, walking towards a bank. ‘I’ll be right back – just need one more form.’

‘fuck that’ I said, hoping he knew I was onto him. ‘I’m waiting right outside’.

he tried to put up a fight, but I wasn’t having it.

if you’re going to take my money, you’re going to have to work for it.

the guards wouldn’t let him in. why we were at a bank, I had no idea. I guessed that usually – by now – he was already running away.

‘fuck, man. we got to go to the other police station. they’re being assholes today.’

‘where’s that?’

‘it’s like, 10 blocks or so. can we just take a cab?’


‘how about a bus?’


we waited for a few minutes and then flagged down a collectivo – a van that simply drives around picking people up and dropping them off.

‘I don’t have any change’ I told him. ‘you’re going to have to pay.’

‘no problem, man. no problem.’

15 minutes later, we stopped and got out at a busy intersection. the driver screamed for money when we did and New York Dave just pushed me out and then pulled me along into an alley.

‘did you not pay him?’

‘oh, shit man. no. I forgot. now, you stay right here, the station is on the other side of this wall. give me [$10] and we’ll get everything in order.’

‘I’m not going to see you again, am I?’ I asked. ‘too many people have told me this is exactly what you do.’

‘hey man, I never fucked anyone over in my life. that last time, the police arrested me, so that’s why I never came back.’

‘I’m trusting you’, I said, handing him the money.

‘no problem… no problem. I’ll be back in 5 minutes.’

I lit a cigarette and entertained the idea of how long he was going to keep this up.

after 20 minutes of waiting, I walked back to the hotel, laughing.

Done by New York Dave – am sure there’s a Facebook group for us.

day 05

there was a huge celebration in the park that day – Alasitas – and I couldn’t find Daniel in the crowd.

day 06

Daniel couldn’t stop laughing about my New York Dave story – ‘I told you, bro!’

sitting next to him, dressed in a tie, was an older gentleman. according to Daniel, he was a former decorated officer and had ties to the inside.

‘I brought him to help you get inside, bro. he made a few calls and today is your day!’

this excited me to no end. finally – I had my stories about trying to get in, and today, I would. in a short few minutes, I would pass through those walls, be assigned a bodyguard, and meet some of the most dangerous men in the world. in one of the most bizarre places in the world.

we walked around the side to that same door and it opened to the same lady. she shouted something at Daniel and slammed the door shut again.

‘bro, did you come here the other day with New York Dave?’


‘yeah, we were looking for you’ I lied.

‘well, now there’s no way of getting you in, I’m afraid. that was the last chance.’

New York Dave. I’m going to kill him if I ever see him again… and I doubted anyone would care.

I walked away, dejected. but then had an idea… if I couldn’t get inside, I could at least sit down with Daniel to talk about what life there was like…

day 07

we did just that. click here for the fascinating interview.