Crazy Dave, La Paz


Crazy Dave comes to the square everyday at one o’clock. Here he performs his story. He is a small lively man in loose dusty clothes who marches across his line of audience whispering and shouting, leaning in for an occasional hand shake, holding a piercing stare, then pulling back with a jump.

He stands in front of San Pedro prison, the place where he spent 14 years of his life. Crazy Dave has a curious relationship with this prison, after his release he tried to break back in four times. “Why? Because I was addicted to Snow White.” Snow White is what he calls cocaine.

Originally a man from from New York, who dreamt of becoming a rockstar, he came to Bolivia to smuggle cocaine. He was incarcerated after attempting to bring 2.5 kg of it back to the US. “You have to be crazy and stupid to try and bring Snow White back home” he warns.

A few facts about San Pedro prison are vital here. It is no regular prison. There are no guards inside, they only man the gate. You must buy your prison cell and can choose it as you enter. There are cafes, barbers, restaurants, shops and even jacuzzis for the prisoners who are earning enough. Some prisoners will choose to live with their families in the prison, sending their children out each day to school. The more affluent drug dealers can even send their kids to the private school across the road.

5 foot 5, Dave leans forwards and looks down whenever he pretends to be another character speaking to himself. In Dave’s story he is helpless, harmless and vulnerable. There was a furious prison drug lord who wouldn’t take his worn out feet as an acceptable excuse to stop crushing coca leaves (an important part of cocaine production) Dave mimes nervously scurrying away in response.

Within the prison you may choose a range of careers. Dave graduated from doing the prison children’s English homework to cocaine production to finally hosting illicit tours around the prison for curious tourists. Those on the outside could even sleep in his cell and experience a night of what it was like to live as a San Pedro convict. None of this was legal and when a Bolivian journalist wrote an exposĂ©, after staying in a hotel above the prison and noticing a little of what went on, a lot changed.

Dave tells us this grudgingly as though the journalist was a sell out, unravelling the lives of him and his friends for little more than glory. Although, to us, revealing the corruption that occurs in San Pedro prison sounds more like a heroic act. Particularly after Dave told us that this journalist can no longer show his face in Bolivia because he is wanted by “the mob”.

When we were on our more official Red Caps tour earlier in the week our guide made it clear that tours inside the prison were very much forbidden and we should not participate if offered an opportunity. That guide was so nervous when discussing drugs that he swapped the word cocaine for sugar. We weren’t sure if this was necessary and who exactly he thought was listening, but it did fill us with wonder at the prospect of scandal. Perhaps a lighter version of the thrill that tourists who used to embark on illicit prison tours felt.

A much smaller crowd than that of the Red Caps tour was gathered around Dave. Two other Brits and three Dutch girls. Dave’s advertising isn’t as clear as any official tour. There were no flyers in our hostel reception about him. We learnt of him through word of mouth and knew that if we wanted to catch a glimpse, we had better get to the square by lunchtime. Although once we arrived he wasn’t hard to miss, providing you knew what you were looking for.

“Any questions?” Dave asked today’s select group. No one volunteered. The locals look as if they may do, many slowing their pace and freezing their stare when passing Dave when he ran backwards and forwards barefoot across the pavement, jumping from one impression to the next.

Dave has been doing this for years now. He’s not the only one to attract an audience for his experiences inside the prison. Rusty Young, an Australian writer who went on an illicit prison tour, ended up staying for three months. He wrote a book called “Marching Powder” about Thomas McFadden, the convict who started the prison tours, formerly an English drug smuggler.

Dave feels that he should have been in Marching Powder. He is a natural performer, it isn’t hard to imagine that this man had once dreamt of becoming a rockstar. He enjoys referencing Hollywood movies and most certainly sees his story as worthy of fame.

I’m trying to work out what I found so fascinating about Crazy Dave. The fact that we were standing in front of a person so well acquainted with corruption. The old fashioned feeling of turning up somewhere based on a time which hadn’t been written down for us, that wasn’t printed online and just hoping to spot a man that someone had mentioned. Listening to this man, who we barely knew, be so candid about his cocaine addiction. It was raw. There was no curator. No tour guide, who had revised the subject matter, issuing us with a standardised version of events.

Dave was the subject and he was staring us in the face. No one was there to tell us whether he was truthful, whether he was good or bad. We had to decide for ourselves.

His past would not have endeared him to us were it told from another voice, but in front of us he looked like a human, with flaws, passions and fears and when you can see a human, you are looking at more of the story.

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