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THE WANDER YEAR

A Brief Pause for Prison in La Paz

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 41: BOLIVIA * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

November 19, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

LA PAZ, Bolivia — William Aponte, my tour guide, was waiting. He has plenty of time these days. Ten years, to be exact.

That's how long a judge gave him for drug trafficking. He's serving his sentence at San Pedro Prison, across from the Plaza Sucre in downtown La Paz. San Pedro's convicts pay their own expenses. Aponte leads tours to get by. Anyone with 51 bolivianos (about $8) and a twisted sense of adventure can see his home.

San Pedro is a notorious prison. The 1,500 inmates run it. The cells are apartments that lock only from the inside. When an inmate's time is up, he sells his unit and furnishings to the highest bidder. Convicts buy and cook their own food or eat in restaurants run by other prisoners. Those with money live well; those without subsist on bread and watery soup and sleep outside.

I read about the place in a guidebook and figured it might make for a memorable visit.

Tours are unofficial. There are no ticket windows or postcard stands. After I agreed to Aponte's fee through the bars of the front gate, he made eye contact with a guard who let me in. Aponte would later pay the guard 40 bolivianos and split the rest with a robber named Romeo, the prison enforcer, a burly man who followed me for my protection and perhaps to ensure that I paid.

The gate clanged behind, and I stood in a courtyard thick with murderers, rapists and thieves. Andrea stayed behind, ready to call whomever you alert when a Bolivian prison tour goes bad.

I shook hands with Aponte, 42, the father of three. He wore a clean polo shirt, jeans and a gold watch. He was caught at La Paz airport trying to sneak 11 pounds of cocaine onto a flight to Switzerland. He grinned as I kept swiveling my head, looking for anyone who might harm me. "Don't worry," he said. "No problem."

I followed Aponte through a maze of dark passages that emptied onto connecting patios surrounded by two-story buildings. Inmates sat behind piles of potatoes, carrots and onions. Others sold canned goods, cigarettes and toiletries from tiny stores. A convict clipped hair in his barbershop, and a few doors down, a fellow inmate shot portraits in his photo studio. Prisoners ate lunch under red umbrellas emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo. One vendor poured fruit smoothies from a blender. Two inmate-doctors staffed a for-profit clinic; one is in for drugs, the other for murdering his wife.

Accommodation in the convent-turned-prison ranges from hovels that sell for a one-time fee of $200 to penthouses that fetch $3,500 when vacated. I did not see it, but Aponte said one rich drug dealer had contractors outfit his flat with a sauna. We stepped over a few penniless inmates sleeping on a balcony to reach Romeo's room, which had a refrigerator, stove and microwave oven. In his bedroom loft were a double bed, color TV, VCR and PlayStation computer games. The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" came from the CD player.

"This is like a small town inside a big city," Aponte said. "If you have money, you can have anything you want here." That includes liquor, prostitutes, weapons, even a band to perform at your birthday party.

Many of Aponte's "tourists" are people buying drugs. One inmate offered to sell me 10 grams of pure cocaine for $100. Of course, I refused. Guards don't search visitors coming or going. They rarely enter the prison. Their job is to keep inmates from escaping--and to take a cut of all contraband that passes under their noses.

The prison's town-like look is made all the more real by the presence of children. About 100 kids live with their fathers; the number swells at Christmas and Easter. Many of the children attend a nearby school, returning to the prison in the afternoon to play on a patch of asphalt. Aponte insisted no one dares touch the kids, but on New Year's Eve 1997, a girl was raped and murdered.

Aponte led me farther into the rambling complex. Peruvian terrorists played cards and watched TV outside. Younger inmates shot pool for money in a billiards hall decorated with pinup girls. A man sold ice cream from a freezer. A bartender poured beer and whiskey.

"The time goes fast here," Aponte said.

After I left, I sat across the street in the park and wondered what to make of the tourist site. What a strange world, I thought. The old woman next to me must have read my mind. She threw her head back and laughed.

*

NEXT WEEK: In search of Lake Titicaca.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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