Guest Column: Prison Tourism

Peru puts new wrinkle on Incarceration Planet
by Bo Keeley

Prison TourismTake a virtual tour of the infamous Lurigancho Lima prison before visiting Peru as a tourist. Watch 50,000 cans of beer tumble off a truck into the prison yard courtesy of the warden who takes a 25-cent commission, try your luck at the casinos, dance shirtless in the disco, pretty girls, drugs, attend church, get a haircut, 12 restaurants run by inmates, a multiple-language library, private rooms and condos, and each of the 300 foreign inmates has a laptop WiFi to run world drug operations on Skype or, as my friend Hank avows, to stay in touch back home.

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“I didn’t do anything!” Hank exclaims.

Hank is a Maine, USA ex-pat who before the set-up that put him in luxurious stripes lived in Pucallpa with a Peruvian wife and bouncing baby. We spoke yesterday in a Pucallpa plaza where his ex-pat friends have been wondering where he disappeared to. They say he does no drugs, is an outstanding athlete, 40-year businessman and good father.

“Peru set me up, took some of the best years of my life, made me miss father´s funeral, and the family businesses has fallen behind!”

Three and a half years ago, Hank as on his way to get a hair transplant in Lima before flying home to spread his father´s ashes over an Atlantic offshore island the family owns. Asking on the sidewalk for a hair salon he was surprised to be answered by a tourist guide he had known in Pucallpa.  It seemed strange to run into Pedro in Lima, but since the guide always smiled and spoke perfect English Hank decided to accept his invitation to stop over at his apartment for a beer. Later in the day he knocked, the door opened, and the Peruvian let him in. They cracked a couple beers, and then the Peruvian excused himself to the bathroom, returned with a white powder up the right nostril, and they chatted for about 30 minutes. A knock on the door, and when Pedro opened it and stepped aside two uniformed policemen burst in demanding to know where he got the white powder up his nose. “The gringo gave it to me!´ he shouted, pointing at Hank. The cops quickly found a kilo of coke behind the couch, and asked, ´Where did you get it?” The nark repeated, pointing at Hank, ´From the gringo!´

Hank told them he didn’t do cocaine, never had, he had no knowledge of the kilo, and he was a businessman on the way home to his father´s funeral with no time for that nonsense. It fell on deaf ears, handcuffs clicked on, he was carted to jail.

Drugs, like prostitution, are legal in Peru but both are illegal to sell. In the case of girls 18 or older, pimps are illegal.

The Peruvian accomplice vanished into the apartment to crank up the mill on Peruvian prison tourism.

A month later, facing a monocle judge between a court provided attorney and mandatory translator, the trial was a farce. The judge scanned the documents for one minute and without glancing up at the defendant, rattled, “Plead guilty and go to jail for three years, or plead not guilty and go for seven!” His attorney advised guilty, Hank agreed, the gavel hammered, and he was taken to Lurigancho.

Lurigancho is Lima’s largest and is called the country’s worst of the worst prisons in the world.  Guards armed with machine guns patrolled the gray perimeter wall. Hank shook in his shoes as the front gate creaked open, a guard shoved him in, and the door slammed. The guards rarely venture in, and inmates control what goes on—who gets food, a place to sleep, who lives, dies, and is sexually molested. The official capacity of Lurigancho is 1600, but it holds more like 6000, with so many inmates that prisoners are hired as in-house guards.

One of these guided him by the elbow through about twenty blocks to the foreign pavilion of 300 inmates, explaining that money talks in jail and if he could afford it he could buy anything except freedom. If you could buy freedom the squeeze on prison tourism inside the walls would stop.  Hank quickly made friends with North Americans, Europeans and others, learning how to have his family funds sent to a go between who brought them on visiting days when a guard was paid to look the other way.  Hank´s family fishing company money spoke loudly, and he started by renting a room with an Israeli, laptop with Skype, and healthy food.

A Peruvian guard collected 50 cents weekly from each foreigner and disappeared outside the wall until the next payday, or ’til beckoned to accept bribes for nearly anything—TV´s, books, girls, steaks—and Hank found that for $10 he could have his baseball pitching machine delivered, but he kept hoping for a parole that never came.

At about $350 per head per month in the foreign block, it’s estimated that the prison, legal system and cops milk foreign visitors for $1 million a year. The average foreign prisoner stay is three years, but some have been there for seven. Most, Hank figures are guilty, usually of drug crimes, but if the cops can’t catch you legitimately they entrap you when they know you have money.

Some Latin countries including Peru and Columbia have been accused of scanning arriving tourists’ bank accounts via their passports to tag high rollers for possible kidnapping and prison tourism.

Many of the inmates are conducting world-wide drug deals via Skype, enhanced by connections within in the pavilion. “I watched hundreds of transaction for huge amounts of money, but basically spent ten hours a day every day surfing the web or on Skype, as the weeks turned into months, into three and a half years.”

“I can take you on a virtual tour via Skype inside the prison to visit a dozen friends who wander up and down the halls with cameras.” However, there wasn’t time because my Iquitos boat was leaving. Hank is on probation for four years, but this month will flee across a remote Ecuador border, as others have done, and was part of his prison education, and then he’ll send for his baby.

“Not that it made an iota difference, I was innocent. Now the only memory I want of Peru is my child back in USA.”

Lurigancho is located in the run-down district of San Juan de Lurigancho district of Lima. There are even a couple of dogs in Lurigancho doing prison time. National Geographic featured this prison as one of the worst in the world.  No prisoners may leave the closely watched precincts, but once inside the walls they can do whatever they like. In this way the prison authorities do not have to bother about the prison’s organization. Most of the Peruvian prisoners in Lurigancho haven’t even gone to trial or been convicted of a crime, while others languish in rags for years long after their sentences are served.

That is, unless you have money to buy velvet stripes and a condo in the foreign pavilion.

If someone asked you where the most dangerous tourist resort on earth is, you might start looking behind the bars of Lurigancho.

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