World’s Most Dangerous Prison: ‘Lurigancho’ in Lima, Peru

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After almost eight months into the Juicebox Journey, I finally found something to make me overcome my fear of writing.  I have always been intrigued by the senselessness and corruption that makes up the judicial system we live with in the United States.  Some friends we made while traveling told us about a dangerous prison in Bolivia where prisoners have taken control over the guards and cocaine is manufactured and distributed from behind the prison walls.  I really wanted to go to Bolivia to check it out, however, I fell in love with Peru and didn’t see myself making the journey over to Bolivia any time soon.  A little snooping around online and I quickly discovered that there wasn’t much different here at the prisons in Peru.  I came across this National Geographic documentary, seen here, naming Lurigancho Prison just outside Lima, Peru, as one of the world’s most dangerous prisons.  Fascinated, I set my heart on getting inside the prison.

I searched around online and found a blog that was written by a local Peruvian who had documented his visit to Lurigancho.  In the comments under the blog I found contact information for a lady from New Zealand who was seeking to help Carlos, one of the inmates in the documentary, to get released.  I contacted her and she told me that Carlos had just been released a few months ago after serving an eight-year sentence.  She gave me a link to his Facebook and two days later I had a date inside one of the world’s most dangerous prisons with a convicted criminal I had never met.

Lurigancho holds nearly 10,000 prisoners convicted of crimes including armed robbery, rape, multiple homicide, international drug smuggling, gang affiliation, and the list goes on.  The prison is kept by only 100 guards who hold highly coveted and more importantly, highly profitable jobs.  On any given Sunday, which is visiting day at the prison, Lurigancho sees anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 visitors.  Add 10,000 prisoners to that and you can get an idea for the level of control the guards have.

aerial_luriganchoAll of the visitors I saw inside were local Peruvians visiting family or friends inside.  My initial reaction when Carlos and I arrived at the exterior of the prison was that this is definitely no tourist attraction.  The streets outside the prison are lined with vendors hawking sandals and white clothes as no dark colored clothes or shoes with laces are allowed inside.  The line of people waiting to get in the prison reminded me of the line outside of a massive concert hall with people as far as the eye could see.  Less than a minute after renting our sandals, Carlos and I were approached by a teenager claiming he could get us to the front of the line for five soles, about two dollars.  I quickly took him up on the offer since Carlos had mentioned it may take us several hours to get in and several hours to get back out.  The kid held true to his word and less than five minutes later I was face to face with my first guard who explained that since my sixty-day tourist visa had expired, I wouldn’t be allowed in.  Carlos nodded his head to give the guy some money.  I gave him two soles, about 80 cents, and he smiled at me and waved me through to the next guard.  We shuffled our way through a sea of guards lined up at the entrance, each holding an open hand tight to their waist line as if no one was noticing that they were soliciting bribes.  Each one smiled after receiving their cut and waved us on to the next guard.  About twenty soles and ten guards later, we were officially inside the prison gates where few guards dared to go.  As we came into the first open courtyard of the prison we were greeted by thousands of screaming, pointing, gawking prisoners grabbing the prison fences.  I took a deep breath, stared straight ahead avoiding eye contact, and had to collect myself for a moment before fighting through the crowd.  Being the only white person in the whole place, I felt the looks piercing through my skin and going straight to my stomach.  Carlos kept looking over is shoulder checking to make sure I was right behind him and I kept looking over my shoulder to see who was grabbing my arm or tugging at my shirt.

A police officer escorts inmates inside Lurigancho prison in LimaA few minutes later we arrived at his old pavilion, one of twenty one pavilions in the whole prison compound.  Each pavilion houses about 500 prisoners and is ruled by an inmate who has inherited the position by demonstrating his gang affiliation, violent capabilities, money, and connections inside the prison.  We weaved through a maze of hallways, fences and locked gates to get to Felipe’s room.  Felipe runs the pavilion where Carlos used to live.  Felipe is a muscular, stocky Peruvian with a shaved head and skin I noticed was free of scars, unlike the other prisoners who were marked head to toe with bullet wounds and knife marks.  He was wearing only his underwear and standing on his bed.  When he saw us he started screaming with joy and jumped down to give us a big group hug.   He threw candy and chocolates at us from a bag full of treats.  He put on some workout clothes and laced up a brand new pair of Nike Air Max’s.  He pulled out his cell phone and asked Carlos to help him adjust the settings since his internet service hadn’t been working properly.  Inside Lurigancho, if you have money, you live like a king.  Prisoners with money wear nice clothes, have cell phones, eat good food, do good drugs, drink lots of booze, etc.  If you have no family, friends or gang members to bring you money, then you steal food or fight for the limited supply of food inside.  Felipe’s room had its own shower, toilet, a radio and a small television.  It took me a few minutes to realize I hadn’t seen a single jail cell anywhere and I never did see one inside Lurigancho.  There are no lock down times.  Everyone is free to roam as they please all day and all night.  Felipe took us to the restaurant hall where there are about 20 restaurants and food stands lined up.  We grabbed a table and were quickly served chicha, a traditional Peruvian drink, and pollo seco, which was a massive plate of chicken and rice.  Above us were several floors of housing for prisoners in for international crimes.  I could sense the word was spreading that a white guy was there because I could see little doors popping open on the floors above us and prisoners leaning over the railing staring at me.  I kept my head down and stuffed myself with some of the best rice and chicken I have experienced in all of Peru.

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A massive black man was making grilled ham and cheese on a George Foreman grill right next to our table.  He stared at me for a while, then came over to shake my hand.  That was by far the biggest hand I have ever shaken.  His fingers seemed like they were the size of my wrists.  He said he was from the Bahamas and in for a murder he committed while in Peru.  I didn’t ask any more questions.  A white guy from South Africa came over and we had a little moment because he spoke English.  He came to Peru with a brilliantly crafted plan to take a kilo of cocaine back to South Africa in capsules.  He told me the story of how he picked up the drugs and took them back to his hotel room.  Two hours later, Peruvian police kicked in the door of his hotel room and he’s been in Lurigancho for six years, five more to go.  Felipe ordered a hot tea and a round of ham and cheese sandwiches for all three of us.  I was absolutely stuffed but I forced it down.  The bill for the food came and I think it was around thirty soles.  I anticipated I would be buying and was fine with that.  Felipe grabbed the bill and shook his head no, refusing my multiple attempts to pay.

We fought our way through seemingly endless crowds of prisoners.  Prisoners would come running across the courtyard towards me begging for money or trying to sell me anything from apple pie to alcohol and drugs.  When they saw that I was with Felipe, they quickly withdrew their offer and just walked away.  We toured the ceramic market inside the prison where they make some really creative ceramics of animals and Peruvian warrior figures.  Healthy looking cats, dogs, roosters and rabbits ran wild all over the prison.  Flat screen TV’s were mounted on the walls of nearly every common area inside.  We hung out and watched guys play soccer on one of several soccer fields inside.  I grew comfortable with the fact that at any given moment there were several hundred guys with face tattoos and knife wounds staring at me. The sweat on my palms finally dried as we wandered though a literal maze of prison walls.  Carlos asked if I wanted to see the disco.  He took us to a dark room with green laser lights bouncing off every wall, reggaeton music blasting, and about fifty drunk guys standing around staring at each other.  We smiled and laughed for about ten seconds and left.

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Felipe took us to another restaurant and people came by our table greeting him like he was the Mother Theresa of Lurigancho.  Felipe kept a notepad with a list of names on it and numbers beside them making sure each one of his cronies got food for lunch and notating how much they owed him, either in money or services.  Soon after sitting down we all had a massive plate of beef and rice in front of us.  I was thankful for the food but literally couldn’t force anything else down.  I passed my plate off to this guy who had been staring me down for a good twenty minutes in hopes to make amends.  He was covered from head to toe in terrible tattoos and had what I would estimate to be at least fifteen knife scars on each bicep.  We soon became chatty with each other and he was quite intrigued with me and why I came to Lurigancho.  Within a few minutes we were talking, all in Spanish, and cracking jokes about the differences between prison in the USA and Peru.  I turned around to find a giant plate of ceviche and a huge pot of seafood soup in front of us.  The ceviche was honestly the best I have had in all of Peru, the ceviche capital of the world.  Once again, I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything.  Felipe gave me the “thanks but no thanks” look when I offered money.  He asked if I had Facebook and quickly sent me a friend request.  He instructed me to look for him on Facebook when I got home, he would be the guy with the default picture of the guy holding a machine gun.  I checked him out later when I got home and sure enough, there he is “Skareface” as he is listed on Facebook.  Peruvians are obsessed with Scarface and spell it like that for some reason.  We wrapped up our lunch session, I bought some bracelets and we said our goodbyes.  I promised a prisoner who said he had family in Connecticut that I would call them and send them some small things from Peru for him.  He wrote down their contact info and gave it to me.  I felt myself hesitating to leave a little.  There were a lot of random beggars pleading for me to give them anything or buy their drugs, but for the most part all the guys I met and hung out with didn’t ask for anything.  They said I could come back anytime and I was safe with them.  I think someday I will.

Getting out was a process much like getting in.  Guards lined up one after another, hands placed strategically at their waist line ready to receive payment for front of line privileges.  Drunk visitors spilled out from the prison gates stumbling into the waiting area where thousands were cheering, screaming and aggressively trying to work a deal to get out the fastest way possible.  The normal process for leaving the prison takes about three hours or more.  We bribed a guard and got to the front of the line.  It still took two hours to get out.  Leaving there was a feeling I will never forget.  There were so many thoughts running through my head, but an inability to manage them at the same time.  I took a big breath of relief as Carlos looked at me and asked what I thought of Lurigancho.  I just shook my head and said, “crazy man”….

Posted on by Kyle Dukes in Peru

8 Responses to World’s Most Dangerous Prison: ‘Lurigancho’ in Lima, Peru

  1. ashley

    Dude, amazing post. What a fascinating experience. Really look forward to seeing you and hearing more about it!
    Keep up the writing xoxo

  2. C Bond

    Hi. I just watched the documentary on the World’s Most Dangerous Prisons…..I can’t believe this….Because the story broke my heart I started typing different words in to Google trying to find out info on the show–specific info-
    I, too, was looking for ONE reason and one reason only—how to get in touch with SOMEONE who could help me help Carlos. I have no idea why, really, as I see a lot of hurt and need right here in my own town…But it was driving me insane and I continued to look. I got nowhere on the NG website. I started looking for any info possible. Not only did I choose to read this article, it mentions Carlos!!!! I am shocked. Please send me info and let me know if he ended up ok…if someone out there DOES now care for him….Did his life change at all for the better. How did the lady from New Zealand find him….Is he ok. thanks for the article. Unbelivably interesting. I will look forward to following your travels now. Any info you can give me on any of this would be so appreciated. Thanks and best wishes

    • Kyle Dukes

      Carlos got released in March of this year. He doesnt really have any family and he said he only has a few friends that are helping him out now. He does a little side work servicing people’s computers but is still looking for work. The lady in New Zealand contacted him through a local pastor i think she said. I got to hang out with him many times while i was in Peru. He’s a really fun guy to hang out with and seems like hes getting his life back after 8 years in there!

  3. Chris

    Would you be willing to email me offline as I’m going to visit Lurigancho tomorrow and would love some tips. Will be happy to detail the reasons for my trip. Very big thanks.

  4. siłownia

    whoah this blog is great i like studying your posts. Keep up
    the great work! You recognize, a lot of individuals are searching around for
    this info, you could help them greatly.

  5. kathleen Perry

    Our church supports someone in the prison who
    had been proven innocent but is still in prison. His family is very poor. Is there
    any way I can help him to be freed?

  6. Ryan Spangler

    Kyle, is there any way to get some contact information from you to get in contact with Carlos? I am a professor at Creighton University doing some research on a Peruvian playwright (Victor Zavala Cataño) currently held in Lurigancho for his role in the Shining Path movement. I am trying to figure out how to get in so that I can conduct an interview with him.

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