Love within boundaries
By Mariana Bazo
The Lurigancho prison in Lima is one of the most overcrowded, violent and unruly jails in Latin America. More than 8,500 prisoners live within its walled perimeter with so much freedom that they have created their own city which reproduces the urban society on the outside, including its most unjust and grotesque aspects. The passageways and open areas are filled with vendors, food stands, soccer fields, industrial zones, rehabilitation centers, barber shops and even pet animals.
It is a tyranny with its own laws imposed by the president and bosses of each sector. Its unique social and economic strata, with classes of poor and rich, are all governed by the power of money and force.
Luri, their affectionate-sounding nickname for Lurigancho, is like a reproduction of Lima with all the entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and resourcefulness of its inhabitants as they look for work in incredible places.
During a rare solo tour with a police escort, I walked very quickly along the market street, past a prisoner deboning chicken with a hatchet. Others were selling fresh vegetables, some were repairing padlocks. I stopped where one prisoner was copying a key and I asked him what it was for. He answered, “The key to freedom, señorita.”
A barber was giving haircuts for one sol, or $0.39, and someone was selling pirated DVDs. I asked the seller if that wasn’t illegal, and he laughed, “The best selling DVD is ‘The Prisoner,’ with Mel Gibson.” (The Prisoner is the title given to the Spanish version of “Get the Gringo.”)
I saw graffiti-covered walls, billiard tables, television sets, drugs and prisoners on the ground smoking marijuana. “Walk, walk, don’t take photos,” I was instructed. There were nuns, priests and meetings of self-help groups, and members of a Colombian NGO that makes soy meal bread for the inhabitants.
I continued through this chaos, trying to take photos while unable to really stop, and with my restricted access enforced by the guards who led me. I wanted to take pictures that didn’t just show the prisoners’ initial surprise as they spotted me. It was difficult to report more in depth, and strike a rapport with the prisoners.
One of my police escorts asked me what I expected to find, since there were nothing but bad guys in there. He said, “Look, I would keep them all locked up as I’m trained to do. Outside they kill us, but no, here they want to rehabilitate them. I just want to get away from here as soon as possible.”
Father Nikolai of Germany, the prison’s chaplain, took me to the best restaurant in Luri whose owner is a prisoner, and entrepreneur. We sat down to eat barbecued suckling pig. The cook spoke to me with pride about the dish of the day, as if we were in any restaurant in Lima. Several other prisoners work for him. The seated diners were paying customers, but the poorer inmates ate the leftovers while others lined up to eat from a common pot.
The poorest are those prisoners who have been expelled from their wings, such as drug addicts who roam around wrapped in blankets and sleep on the floor. Father Nikolai gives them food, but there are so many that he can’t do much more.
Jose Luis, a former prisoner who now runs group therapy sessions, told me that it’s hard to rehabilitate the inmates. “They just wait for their sentence to finish, return to the street and normally many end up back here. I think the worst thing about being a prisoner isn’t the loss of freedom, but the loss of the right to speak, because inside you live very marginalized, very downtrodden. Those who have power, live. In here money counts more that the person.”
I witnessed a mass wedding, wondering if there was a worse way to choose a mate. They were all in love. Nine prisoners said yes to their brides who live in freedom outside, with the right to visit only once a week. The brides dressed in white and the well-groomed prisoners enjoyed a moment of love, balloons, party and wedding cake; It was love with boundaries.
The held their own version of the Olympics, and suddenly the prison was filled with boxers, soccer players, painted faces, and prisoners carrying their pets. I asked one carrying a live rabbit if it would end up in the pot later, and he looked at me horrified. “This is Miguel, our sector’s mascot,” he said. I asked him laughing, “What did he do to be in here?” He answered, “Miguel is here for abusing a female rabbit, and received a life sentence.”
In the opening ceremony of the Games, they danced to Michael Jackson’s thriller and zombies emerged from coffins.
When they celebrated Peru’s Independence Day, I couldn’t think of a more contradictory scene; The prisoners sang with their souls the National Anthem and the warden had them parade dressed as soldiers with cardboard rifle replicas. Their seriousness reminded me of school parades. In Peru everyone marches on Independence Day, and in the end this was no different – ode to arms, police, and criminals, the same old game.
I did find a place of peace amidst the chaos, a place with plants where sister Ana Marzolo works to rehabilitate prisoners with drug addiction. The nun, who came to Lurigancho from the U.S. 36 years ago, told me, “There is something good inside them. There are too many who have been mistreated. You wouldn’t believe how some of them were abused, raped, and abandoned as children. And in spite of this they manage to overcome it, but some of them are so psychologically destroyed that it’s difficult, difficult. But the Lord knows this…”
She added, laughing, “In Lurigancho there is everything, obviously. Just like in the street. Sometimes there are worse people on the streets than here inside. You never know.”
Sister Ana is petite and elderly, but with an incredible joy about her. I asked her what a nun was doing in a place like this, and she said, “I guess it’s the rebel in me. I identify with them [the prisoners].”
I asked her if she had any bad experiences in Luri.
“I was taken hostage twice. It was horrible. Another sister died, and the prisoners who took us died as well.”
That was in 1983. A year later they took over the prison again. “That was when I was most scared. I told one boy, Victor, ‘You know that we’re all going to die. The police are coming, so what chance do you have? Not one chance.’ But thank God the warden was able to get him off me, and take the gun from my head. That did affect me for some time. But look, two times in 36 years isn’t much, is it?”
I was left with the feeling that there really is love within these boundaries.