San Sebastian prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia is notoriously known for housing mostly people arrested for drug trafficking. Director Violeta Ayala has painted a painfully intimate portrait of life in this decaying overcrowded hellhole in her documentary Cocaine Prison.
In Bolivia, the collection of coca leaves and the production of cocaine are a way of life for the throngs of poor and undereducated in the countryside. It is nearly the only source of reliable income. As the leaves are drying in the sun one of the coca farmers explains that without cocaine his village would not exist. Everyone here takes for granted that coca will be gathered, cocaine will be made, transported and sold.
“Director Violeta Ayala has painted a painfully intimate portrait of life in this decaying overcrowded hellhole…”
Coca has been part of Bolivian and all of South American culture for centuries. Chewing the leaves results in a mild stimulant bump, same as caffeine, and has been practiced as pain relief, religious ceremony, and as a light tonic for as long as there have been cultures living near the plants. In 1859 German chemist Albert Niemann isolated the active compound of “colourless transparent prisms” in the leaves as research for his PhD. He extracted cocaine and the rest is sordid history.
Cocaine Prison documents the experience of Hernan Torres and his sister Daisy when he was arrested for trafficking. They are both very young, just out of their teens. Hernan did something that happens every day in Bolivia: he took a kilo of cocaine on a bus to be delivered. Only a few people get caught. Hernan was one of the unlucky few.
His sister swings into action to get him released, visiting him often, taking all the meetings with an abogado, and even toying with the idea of trafficking as Hernan had done in order to raise more money for his defense. It is not made clear whether she actually did this but the drug boss (who sounds like a middle-level manager in any soulless organization “I’d help if I could, you know, but there’s only so much I can do, my hands are tied….”) refuses to finance or influence for Hernan. Hernan is blamed for getting caught, he’s seen as bad at the job.
Years pass, Hernan celebrates birthdays in the prison. Family is allowed to come visit and hang out with him. They bring cake for birthdays.
The striking note about all of this is how resigned everyone involved seems to be to the process, this place, and their own fate. As families and children wander around San Sebastian there’s no surprise on any face as the bad news comes in waves. You live in desperate poverty? Yup. You’re going to risk prison time to make some money to start a band? Yup. Now you’re in prison and your court dates are pushed back over and over because you can’t afford a good lawyer and have no financial leverage from the drug bosses? Si. And so it goes. Everyone shrugs.
“Hernan’s case is desperate in the crowded, violent, largely unsupervised prison…”
Ayela was able to get this amazingly detailed first-hand footage from inside the prison by giving cameras to inmates and having them returned to her to edit. This is innovative and important filmmaking at it’s finest.
Hernan’s case is desperate in the crowded, violent, largely unsupervised prison, but not hopeless like his cellmate, a drug mule who will probably spend the rest of his life there. The future is brighter for Daisy who finished university and is pursuing a career outside the coca industry.
Eventually Hernan is freed with a pardon because he was a first-time offender and goes immediately to work with his father in the coca fields.
Cocaine Prison (2017). Written and directed by: Violeta Ayala. Starring: Mario Bernal, Daisy Torres, Hernan Torres.
8 out of 10