COCAINE PRISON begins in Bolivia’s notorious San Sebastian prison, a virtual citadel inside a crumbling old colonial house and follows the interlinked lives of Hernan, a drug mule who dreams of being a drug boss, his younger sister, Daisy, who struggles to escape the lure to traffic cocaine and Hernan’s friend, Mario, a cocaine worker fighting for freedom. In a country where the cocaine trade isn’t ruled by violence, these three small fish dispel the gun toting Narco myth and put into perspective the drug war and the lives of the ‘disposable’ people.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the children “swim” excitedly in huge piles of coca leaves, like the Ball Room in a McDonald’s play area. Mediums tell fortunes by reading the leaves. When they grow older, the children help harvest the coca plants.
The relationship between the coca plant and cocaine is akin to grapes and wine. While growing a certain amount of coca leaves is legal, making, taking or transporting cocaine isn’t.
Amid this conundrum, teenagers may be paid $100 to transport cocaine, risking arrest and years in the notorious San Sebastian Prison. This is the life on display in Cocaine Prison, where the boundaries of legality are blurred, in a country where the coca crop by product all but props up a “grey market” economy.
Needing to pay lip service to the U.S. War on Drugs, the Bolivian government enforces drug laws, which allows it to charge powerless drug workers while often turning a blind eye to powerful “big fish.” As a result, half of all prison inmates in Bolivia are in for minor drug offences.
In her film, Indigenous filmmaker Violeta Ayala puts a human face three of them in fact on the vicious circle of life in and outside the notorious San Sebastian Prison. Cocaine Prison follows Deisy, a teenager who struggles to escape the lure to traffic cocaine, her brother Hernan, arrested with two kilos of cocaine near the Argentinian border, and his best friend Mario, a cocaine worker fighting for freedom.
Not a stereotypical prison, San Sebastian is more of an overcrowded, government run slum holding 700 people, most of them in legal limbo. Ayala and filmmaker partner Dan Fallshaw, managed to smuggle in cameras to various inmates. As a result, Cocaine Prison is a rare case of a prison documentary partially shot by the inmates themselves.
The twists of the tale are almost movie like, with Daisy mulling a devil or angel choice of freeing her brother by becoming a “mule” herself, or cooperating with authorities seeking her testimony against her boss.
When you see what Deisy, Hernan and Mario are up against, the price of hypocrisy in the drug war is obvious and real.