Most days at 1pm you can catch ‘Crazy Dave’ in Plaza San Pedro/Plaza Sucre, right outside La Paz’s infamous San Pedro prison – where he spent the last 14+years of his life before coming out on parole. Dave’s appearance is part-performance storytelling, part-rant, with some music thrown in. It is a tragi-comedy in many parts, and the tragedy at the centre of it all is Dave himself, just one of so many victims of state sanctioned brutality, conspiracy, corruption & abuse. Living proof indeed that prison really doesn’t work.
Anyone can roll up for free and listen to Dave as he recounts his story whilst throwing in some juicy titbits about the realities/horrors of San Pedro, and some of those he met inside – such as the author & subject of the famous book ‘Marching Powder’ (do read the book by Rusty Young, 2003 – possible free download – nearly all of it’s true according to Dave, or see this wikipage – although from what Dave said it may be rather outdated now). Our interest though is in Dave’s story, not the juicy tibits, and we are aware Dave’s facts may have a degree of artistic licence (see these other blogs for example 1, 2, 3, 4). So this is his story, as taken from our notes of his ‘performance’….
Crazy Dave (Dave Sanchez?) is a 53yr old Hispanic-American from Spanish Harlem in NYC. He’s a weather-beaten, battered looking, tanned & tattooed little fella about 5ft 5inches, with a smashed left elbow, and dirty bare feet. Back in the late 1990’s, by his own admission, he was a fairly desperate lowlife junkie who’d seriously let down his partner and kids. Then opportunity knocked, or so he thought.
Some drug aquaintances offered him $2k to spend a week in Bolivia and bring a little of the local produce back. After a week of drugs, sex & rock n roll he found himself back at La Paz airport, in his luggage were 2 sealed beer bottles containing some 2.5kg (or was it 8.5kg?) of cocaine. Perhaps unsurprisingly he was stopped, searched & detained. He was subsequently sentenced to 16 years in prison for drug smuggling, receiving short thrift from the the US authorities, unsurprsingly! Dave now believes he was the decoy man for a much larger smuggling operation, the sacrificial sucker who nobody would give a damn for, whilst the real criminals raked in the drug profits. He surmises it was they who tipped off the border security to bust him as cover for the bigger deal. Makes sense really.
In San Pedro life wasn’t fun! As a small American gringo with little cash time was hard, and for the first year hardly anyone spoke to him. Redemption came as a result of his (American) english, and he was ‘asked’ to help the kids of some bigger criminals with their english homework, payment coming mainly in drugs.
Dave talked at length about the set-up inside the prison, the corruption of the authorities and ‘self-rule’ of the prisoners; how the prisoners self-organised into 8 distinct barrios inside with their own cafes & recreational facilities; about how sex offenders/rapists were dealt with internally; about the outer & inner 40ft walls made from adobe (then rendered) with the area in-between used for ‘solitary’ confinement; about the need to buy your own ‘apartment’ (or cell) or face sleeping on the bare internal plaza; about how his cell cost him $600 but would now cost $2-3k, and how other more luxurious apartments now cost over $100k; about how prisoners could ‘buy’ their way into San Pedro, and how money could buy virtually anything inside (or outside & bring it in); and indeed how prisoners could arrange outside visits at will, for a price. Once a Spanish colonial building, then a nunnery, San Pedro has been a prison since 1895. Initially intended to hold 300-400 prisoners, Dave reckoned there were 1100 when he entered, and now over 2000. Plus assorted wives/partners, and upto 135 kids! Many of the kids go to schools nearby, many of course exhibit the types of behaviour to be expected from such an existence, and many will no doubt end up where their parents are now. Tragic.
(Note – under Bolivian law, since about the year 2000, only kids upto 6yrs old can be inside a prison, and then only in a womens prison. [See this article from 1998]. However laws & Bolivian prisons clearly don’t go together!).
From english homework Dave graduated after 2 years to cocaine production inside San Pedro, which is long renowned for the quality & quantity of cocaine it produces! His job intitially was to tread the coca leaves into mush with his bare feet. It didn’t do the soles of his feet much good, but did feed his habit. His job with one of the big criminal gangs inside lasted 3 years, then he moved onto tourism!
Dave maintained that for the next 7 years or so, from around 2005/6, he operated as one of 8 or 9 guides who ran paid weekend tours of the prison for tourists, who got to stay inside for a night or two, and sample the wares. Sometimes this went wrong, and visitors were stuck inside for longer, although increased bribes usually resolved problems. Dave maintained the tours ended about 4 years ago after an expose by a Bolivian journo who’d taken photos of the inside of the prison & its workings from the top floor apartment of an adjacent hotel. Major regime change happened at the prison in an attempt to clean it up, with variable results. Dave however states, in a rather outraged tone, that he himself is no longer able to get access back into the prison.
(Note – despite claims by authorities to have cleaned up the prison, and even to be closing it soon, it is apparent huge problems remain. Although tourist tours appear banned, we’ve had it on good authority that access can be gained, you just need to know the right channels, and pay enough! Quite why anyone would want to pay for some sort of sick voyeuristic tour of this tragic prison & it’s occupants is beyond us!?)
Around 16-18 months ago, after a spell of regular day release, Dave was finally released on parole, which should last for another 8 months or so. Unable to claim any benefits, or get a ‘proper’ job, he supports himself with his donation-based talks & local tours. An unbelievably precarious existence, his housing is at best temporary and at worst under a bridge. He talked of attending NA (narcotics anonymous) but didnt seem impressed, and his current drug usage (if any) was unclear. Crazy by appearance and manner, its really no surprise given the last 16 years, in fact its probably a miracle he’s survived.
So what next for Dave if he survives parole? Deportation seems unlikely. Support from US authorities appears non-existent, and Dave fears that if he returned to the US he’d be back in prison for debts and unpaid family maintenance, so is unable to see his grown-up kids (whether they’d want to see him is unknown). He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, and despite the bluster of his performance his future looks pretty damn bleak. What the guy needs is some serious legal advice & representation, but for someone like him that’s unlikely to happen too. In Bolivia for someone like him only money and/or contacts works, and one suspects he has little of either. Meanwhile of course, the system remains corrupted, Bolivian justice a lottery, and the big drug lords carry on piling up the cash whilst the little guys at the bottom pay the price. There’s nothing romantic or thrilling about San Pedro prison. It is a shithole. As are ALL prisons – brutal, dehumanising and a key tool of social control.
For more on Dave check out his FB page for pics & music! He states he has his own documentary in the pipeline, to rival the long rumoured release of Brad Pitts film of the book Marching Powder. So we’ll not return to the juicy titbits in his talk, as he needs all the breaks he can get.