Inside Bolivia’s Most Dangerous Prison: Palmasola

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Antonio* laughed as he pointed to the sign above the entrance to Bolivia’s most notorious prison. “Rehabilitation centre? This is where you come if you want to find out what makes crime truly organized.”

A rolled-up bill with an ID card and the name of an inmate is all that is needed to gain access to the most violent prison in this Andean nation. Nobody looks twice, even at a “gringo,” as within these walls there are inmates of every nationality.

You can get almost anything into Palmasola, so long as you pay the policemen who guard the doors. Outside are porters with wheelbarrows, the prison’s taxi service. Visitors pay the porters to load up and bring in everything from toilet paper to flat-screen TVs. Antonio, a former inmate, was bringing in marijuana to pass on to some friends. The prostitutes, easy to pick out in the line of waiting visitors, make a good living on the days they work within the prison walls.

The police who guard Palmasola — about 40 in all — are estimated to earn up to $20,000 a day between them, thanks to the “tolls” that people pay to move visitors and products inside. While a significant percentage of that $20,000 is paid as bribes to officers further up the chain of command, the policemen here still make more than 10 times their official salary.

Entering the prison, we saw an older man dressed in designer jeans and cowboys boots walking out. The guards deferentially waved him through. “He’s the ‘sheriff’ of the whole prison,” explained Antonio, “the senior prisoner. He comes and goes as he pleases.”

Within the 4m high walls are four different sections of the prison. There is the administrative section; PC2, the woman’s prison; PC3, where the most violent inmates are held, and then PC4. This section is really a small town (pictured below), taking up most of the prison space, where if you have money, you can live like a king.

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In August last year, PC3 saw a prison riot which left 32 inmates dead and 70 wounded. In what was a battle for control of the patio, inmates turned domestic gas canisters into flamethrowers. Apparently at least one police officer was complicit in the massacre: he opened a door that allowed rioting prisoners to enter another section.

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The first payment of $500 simply gets you into PC4, without having to pass through PC3 first. Once through the gate you enter the prison’s criminal economy. There is no cell waiting for you: you have to rent or buy one. If not, you sleep on the floor. A one-off payment of $120 is also necessary upon entry to cover the “cleaning” costs of PC4. If you don’t have the $120, you do the cleaning.

When Antonio arrived, he knew the score and he had the necessary cash stacked up. He paid the police guards to get into PC4, he paid the “cleaning” fee, he bought not only a cell, but a “shop” for $13,000, a few square meters of real estate where prisoners set up businesses, anything from restaurants to Internet cafes. He used the income from the shop to live while he was incarcerated. He also paid $3000 to the “sheriff” of PC4 — who was introduced to me as “Sarudo” — so that no one would bother him.

“Sarudo runs everything here,” said Antonio. “When you buy a cell or a shop off another prisoner, he acts as the notary. Without his signature, no deal is sealed. I paid him $3000 to make sure that nobody messed with me. It was a bargain.”

Sarudo governs all inmates in PC4 and regulates the criminal economy. Like most of the “prison management” he is a “trenton,” someone who’s been sentenced to 30 years, which means he is a murderer. He runs the prison population by using the inmates who cannot pay the “cleaning” fee. These men, almost all Bolivian, like Sarudo, pay their way by doing the cleaning, acting as the local police force, and imposing internal discipline.

At the center of PC4 is the sports area, where inmates play football and basketball. To one side is a dank and dark cell where Sarudo places those who refuse to obey the prison code. The cell was damp, open to the elements, and about 12 m². There were six men squeezed into the space, trying to get as far away from the door, and the driving rain, as possible.

“That is where they take those inmates that need further discipline,” said Antonio, pointing to an alleyway that led to the prison wall. “Further discipline involves the selective application of violence,” he added, smiling.

Antonio introduced me to two of his friends, Bulgarians, who were serving seven-year sentences for acting as drug mules. They had rented a “suite,” which was made up of a bedroom, a bathroom and a living room with a fridge and a gas ring for cooking. They lived above an Internet salon. While the signal was not strong enough for Skype calls, the Bulgarians were able to keep in touch with friends and family back home via e-mail.

“It is not bad in here,” said one of the Bulgarians, drawing on a marijuana joint. “In fact I might stick around in Bolivia once I finish my sentence, there are plenty of opportunities here.”

The prison does supply food: huge metal vats dumped at the entrance to PC4 and distributed by Sarudo’s men. But those prisoners with some money avoid this food wherever possible. We ate at one of the prison restaurants; five soup portions and five plates of spaghetti with meatballs cost me under $10, and the quality was certainly higher than many of the Bolivian establishments on the other side of the prison walls.

SEE ALSO: More Coverage of Prisons

Within PC4 there are more than 12 different cellblocks, where most of the more “luxurious” cells are to be found. Antonio took me to meet a Colombian drug trafficker in Block 9. The cell would have put several three-star hotels in Santa Cruz to shame. A large spacious room, with a cooking area to one side and a separate, immaculate bathroom with a shower. A flat-screen TV was stuck to the wall by the bed, and a computer sat on the desk. The cell was worth $7000, money that its inhabitant would recoup when he sold it on, once his sentence was complete. Sarudo, of course, would take his notary fee, but then everyone knew that his seal meant that the terms of any sale would be fulfilled.

Antonio, a lifelong criminal, learnt a great deal in PC4. He made some very good contacts, contacts there were to lead him to his current job, working for a Colombian drug trafficker, moving very high-purity cocaine.

“This is truly a university of crime,” he said.

*Name changed to protect his identity.

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