Letter from Lima — From the February 2012 issue

All Politics Is Local

Election night in Peru’s largest prison

To understand a place like Lurigancho, it’s best not to dwell on words like prison or inmate or cell, or on the images these terms generally connote. The 7,400 men who live in Lurigancho, Peru’s largest and most notorious penal institution, do not wear uniforms; there is no roll call or lockdown or lights-out. Whatever control the prison authorities have inside Lurigancho is nominal. They secure the gate to the prison, and little else.

The complex’s twenty housing blocks can be divided roughly into two sections: the better-off inmates live in El Jardín (the Garden), the odd-numbered blocks. The greenery withered long ago, but the name and its cachet have remained. Many residents carry the keys to their own cells and are free to wander the grounds as they wish, though some prefer not to leave the relative calm of their territory. The other side of Lurigancho is known as La Pampa (the Plain), the even-numbered blocks, home to thousands of accused murderers and petty thieves. The density here can be twice that of El Jardín, the conditions unsanitary and often violent.

Illustration by John Ritter. Source photograph by Paco Arévalo Varela

Illustration by John Ritter. Source photograph by Paco Arévalo Varela

Lurigancho is only a few miles from the center of Lima, Peru’s capital and largest city, and it remains connected to the life of the city. La Pampa is organized by neighborhood, each block corresponding to a different district of the capital. The blocks constitute an imaginary map of Lima’s criminal world — one for San Martín de Porres, another for La Victoria, another for San Juan de Miraflores, and so on — each section serving as welcoming committee, support group, and finishing school for the young delinquents who have the misfortune to arrive there.

Separating El Jardín from La Pampa are a high brick wall and a narrow alley known as El Jiron de la Unión, whose namesake was once the most aristocratic promenade in Lima’s colonial center. The prison version is an open-air market where one can get a haircut and buy soap, batteries, razor blades, old T-shirts, drugs, and popsicles. During the day the alley is crawling with the sin-zapatos (the shoeless), Lurigancho’s army of hopelessly drug-addicted inmates who don’t belong to any block. On any given night, 200 to 300 of these men have nowhere to sleep.

Because there are about a hundred inmates for every guard (the average in the United States is six inmates per guard), the authorities tend to look the other way when it comes to contraband like drugs, alcohol, cable television, and cell phones — the sorts of comforts that can make prison life tolerable. Drugs in particular help take the edge off the overcrowding and keep an otherwise restive population in an acquiescent haze. As one trafficker told me, “It’s the only way to control these beasts.” He found it frightening to contemplate Lurigancho without its daily fix. Overdoses are common, but there are only sixty-three doctors for the 49,000 inmates in Peru’s prison system, and just a handful of those are assigned to Lurigancho. Enough food for two scant meals a day is delivered to the prison gates, but everything else — from maintenance to discipline to recreation — is the responsibility of the men inside. Each block is run by a boss, a ranking figure in the Lima underworld, whose authority within the block is unquestioned. Block Seven in El Jardín, which is reserved for international drug traffickers, is an exception.

Block Seven houses many men who, by virtue of their occupation, have traveled the globe, hold multiple passports, and speak several languages. The standard of living here reflects the relative wealth of this elite. The traffickers are businessmen, accepting as an article of faith that most problems can be resolved, if not avoided altogether, with money. The majority are Peruvians, many from the coca-producing jungle regions in the east, but there are others, too: men from China, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, Spain, Turkey. The walls of the yard show the diversity of its residents: painted maps of the European Union, logos of Colombian soccer teams, murals celebrating jungle life, one of which shows a small biplane, the emblem of the drug trade, floating high above green, forested hills. There are nearly thirty nations represented, and inmates range from the unlucky would-be drug mule who never made it past airport security to the experienced cocaine trafficker patiently serving out his third or fourth prison sentence in as many countries. There are ordinary inmates as well, men brought in to the block to work. The result is a uniquely cosmopolitan culture — in Lurigancho, but not of it — a gated community within a prison. Because the nearly 400 inmates there have little interest in or connection to the hierarchies of Lima’s dark streets, Block Seven is not run by a single boss. Here, there is democracy.

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is the author of two story collections, a graphic novel, and Lost City Radio, winner of the 2009 International Literature Prize. He is also executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast.

More from Daniel Alarcón:

Commentary January 23, 2012, 3:24 pm


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