Illustration: Anne Le Guern

I’m in Lurigancho prison, home to some of the most dangerous murderers, thieves, drug dealers, and rapists in Peru, and I’m all by myself. The previous day, I’d spurned police protection despite warnings against walking around the prison alone. I’d already visited several times in the company of the warden—and by now, most prisoners knew I was a reporter, and that I was giving away money and cigarettes in exchange for a picture of their tattoos. Those visits had allowed the photographer to capture some striking images of inked skin, but I’d tired of getting such a peppy, tailored tour of the place, with lunch thrown in for good measure. I decided to come to the prison like any woman wanting to meet with an inmate would.

Following the instructions to a T, I carried ID and wore a long skirt, sandals, and a hat for camouflage. I brought a loaf of bread and a roll of toilet paper to appear more convincing. I was supposed to meet Calambrito, a young prisoner who’d promised to guide me through this inferno, but I didn’t have the slightest idea how to find him without blowing my cover.

Luckily, I ended up queuing beside a girl who, like me, was on her way to block twenty. By imitating her, I was able to navigate all the security checkpoints and get through unnoticed. I wondered if this girl’s name was inscribed in bleeding letters surrounding a thorny heart on the chest of some murderer, but decided not to pry. To all these queueing women, the man they’re visiting inside is innocent. I remember spotting an enormous white-and-blue dolphin swimming on the dark arm of a woman who stood amidst that sea of wives, lovers, daughters, prostitutes, friends, aunts, and cousins. I seized the opportunity to compliment her on her tattoo, hoping for some comment on the dolphin’s meaning, but she ignored me.

I’d later learn that animal tattoos nearly always reference a criminal’s alias. Dolphin was, probably, this woman’s husband, accompanying her on her skin. The lady behind me, whose son had been in prison for 125 days, glared at me and informed me that “tattoos are for criminals.” I was given the number 864— my turn in line—and as the guard was writing it in permanent marker on my forearm, my friend found her husband and said goodbye to me, abandoning me at the door to block twenty.


It was as if all of Peru’s criminals had moved into the most frightening neighborhood of Lima. And they all seemed to be roaming pretty freely. Until five in the afternoon, they are all allowed to move about unrestrained: they work, kill, get high, get tattoos, father children, buy electrical appliances, operate in gangs, and monitor robberies from their blocks using cell phones. I nudged a dozing policeman and asked after Calambrito. “He’s in solitary.” The uniformed man asked me to wait for another officer to see if he could get him out of “the Pit,” the cells where prisoners ended up if they were found in the yard after 5 p.m., usually because they had been shut out of the blocks due to fights or robbery. They could be confined in the Pit for up to fifty days.

The maximum authority of the prison is the warden, Colonel Valdivia. The Colonel is as serious and formal as Vargas Llosa’s character Pantaleón Valdivia, who is in charge of creating a regiment of female visitors to appease the passions of the soldiers in the Peruvian jungle. And the Colonel’s job is at least as novelesque as his literary counterpart’s: he has to control 7,200 prisoners living in a prison built for a fifth of its current population.

I put my glasses on, to better read the hieroglyphics of their scars. I riffle through skin after skin, letting the ugliness of their unwashed bodies speak to me.

Researchers who have studied prison tattoos say that they’re an identity card of sorts—a language through which the lacerated bodies communicate their lacerated lives. They are marks of marginality, violence, and resistance.

At the start of the twentieth century, the fathers of criminal anthropology hypothesized that tattoos were symbols of psychic primitivism, and they traveled around the world, visiting countless prisons, to diagnose the degeneration of inmates’ souls. They’d hoped to sort criminal pathologies into orderly categories, but the impulse to categorize is often futile. For example, take Cirilo— thrice imprisoned for murder and robbery, and living proof that it is not easy to understand evil. On the back of his arm, Cirilo has a faded tattoo of a woman stabbed with a dagger. He says it represents his perplexingly terrible luck with women. This affliction really shouldn’t come as a surprise to him—he killed his brother-in-law by stabbing him in the leg.

The life of criminals is as clichéd as their stick-and-poke tattoos: a rose underlined with the name of their deceased mother, saints and sorrowful Christs, voluptuous women, and palm trees with sunsets in the background. Sarita Colonia, the Peruvian patron saint of thieves and rapists, covers many a horrible scar. Ferocious cobras and birds of prey signify strength, skulls indicate murderous intent, and a snake wrapped around a sword announces the inmate’s desire to exact vengeance on the cop that landed them in jail.

They all miss someone, they’re all prisoners of someone’s love, they all reminisce about their happy days and recall their childhood idylls. Then their film darkens, and they see themselves turning to alcohol, drugs, and crime. The marks on their skin are meant to transport them to better times, to a mother with open arms or a girlfriend waiting for them outside. If Plato had set foot in Lurigancho, he’d take back that famous phrase: “The body is the prison of the soul.” The prisoners’ tattooed bodies are vehicles for escape, but for now, they are alone. And this devastating loneliness is to blame for everything. Loneliness, and that two-faced bitch who stopped coming around. Tattoos are their only loyal companions. They are as everlasting as God.

So this is the Pit: a damp, dead-end alley made up of rows of cells slammed shut with heavy locks. In the half-light, all I can see are the hands of the immured men, fluttering between the bars. Outside, prisoners hold their loved ones and blast music, but the festive spirit stops short at the entrance to this dismal block of cells. “Calambrito!” I call out. “Here,” they all reply in unison. They’re all Calambrito. “Who’s looking for him?” replies a voice. Then I yell my own name. Someone tells me to go and find a certain policeman, lord of this dungeon. It costs me five soles to free my jailbird, and I have to leave my ID as proof that I’ll return. And there he is, my fake boyfriend. “I thought you wouldn’t come,” he says, and he greets me with a kiss.

We walk arm in arm through Jirón de la Unión—the prison’s version of the main street in downtown Lima that bears the same name. We have to dodge spit, and I have to hold tight to my skirt because the prisoners are in the habit of stepping on women’s skirts to pull them down. Calambrito is scrawny and has the face of a feral child. Sometimes he gets convulsions; hence the nickname Calambrito, or “muscle spasm.” Our tour begins at the most dangerous block, which houses members of the Los Destructores and Los Elegantes gangs. Calambrito was assigned to this block before he was sent to the Pit. I admit to him I’m feeling intimidated.

“Don’t you worry. Visitors are respected here. Visitors are sacred.”

We walk by block eleven—the most heavily armed block, according to my companion. Most of the men in that block are policemen-turned-criminals. When Calambrito tells me the block is often in a state of crossfire, I hide my notepad, afraid it might set someone off. In none of the blocks does Calambrito feel as at home as he does in block four, which houses prisoners from the district of La Victoria, his old neighborhood. He was transferred out of block four after a fight, but his brothers still live there. I’m surprised by how clean the place is. There are restaurants and warehouses, and a salsa group is rehearsing in the yard. I start moving toward the band, but Calambrito already has a plan for us: the bar. There’s a bar in here? Yes, with all the bells and whistles. On each table there’s a bottle of chicha de jora, corn beer. We settle down for a chat. By his third glass, Calambrito is telling me about the time he killed two security guards point-blank. But let’s not get off track: I’m not writing this to tell murderous tales, but to document the biography of his skin. His right shoulder sports the name “Grace,” inside a heart pierced by an arrow on one side and flanked by a wing on the other.

“I was shot by her arrow, but then she left me, so I added a wing.”

On his other arm, Calambrito has another heart, this one bearing his mother’s name, “Délida.” It’s a heart with thorns, a wounded heart. “My mother always gave me everything she could, and I was never able to do the same for her.” Tears roll down his cheeks and he wipes them off with his grimy hands. He says nobody visits him, that this morning he sent a message to his mother asking her to please come. But there’s no use.

“Do you dance?”

It’s not my first choice of a place to dance, but we get up and sway to one of those salsa songs that’re danced up close. There’s a unicorn under the heart-shaped tattoo on his right shoulder. It hardens on his muscle when I take him by the arm. He tells me the unicorn tattoo was given to him by his father, who died from a shot to the head. His dad was also a thief, and he spent his whole youth in Lurigancho. He was known as Cabaíto, “little horse,” because of his equine face. By the time Calambrito got the unicorn tattoo, he was already a delinquent, and had been glassed on his arm after running into trouble. “Come here, I’m going to cover that scar up for you,” his father had said. “I’m going to give you a tattoo so that you’re my pony, my pony son. I’m a horse, but you’re a unicorn.” Calambrito also has a demon dragon on his back. It represents the Devil, he explains, because he’s never been able to change. His two kids died in a fire at home while he was out getting drunk. His pain is a wound that will never heal.

Calambrito turns serious, and explains to me that prisoners die from a lack of emotional support: “Not all women are the same. There are women who are after something, and then there are the true companions.” I’m the kind who’s after something, that much is clear. Then he tells me not to feel awkward, but that he’s written me a poem. He hands me a scrap of paper with a G for Gabriela on the back: “Gracias—I’m thankful this life has led me to meet such a wonderful woman.” I’d been warned that it was common practice to reel visitors in with poems, tears, and stories as a way to extract money from them. Although I was flattered, I didn’t have a penny left. At each block I’d had to give out a coin, like a clueless tourist. We left as the orchestra was playing “Señora ley,” but by then I’d had enough of salsa and was running late to my next meeting.

Reluctantly, Calambrito agrees to walk me to block seven. He knows that’s where I’ll leave him. The place is known as the Sheraton, the five-star wing of Lurigancho, where legend has it that a can of beer costs fifteen soles. The block houses gringos, Africans, Israelis, and Chinese men who’ve been on the front pages of newspapers. “Welcome to the mafia,” says Calambrito. He’s referring to the drug mules—people who got locked up for trafficking drugs, and probably then carried on trafficking from within the jail. The block has a giant TV screen, a well-equipped gym, a pool table, and—more importantly—José Richie, the tattoo artist.

Although he lives in block five, José Richie spends his days here with his clients, the posh prisoners. The tattoo artist is tall, and his body is the product of daily exercise and a very unprisonlike diet. He seems honest, or is at least very good at feigning honesty. He is the polar opposite of the malnourished, sickly, and debauched Calambrito. Before I can introduce them, Richie tells me my “boyfriend” can’t come into his block. So I say goodbye to my by-now old friend, who before leaving asks for another sol. I agree to meet him at the Pit in a couple of hours, and I watch him walk away with what’s left of the corn beer hidden in a black plastic bag.

The tattoo artist leads me to his cell, which looks like the room of an upper-middle-class bachelor, except it’s behind bars. Black furniture, posters on the walls, television, DVD player. He’s already spent five years in prison, since the day he was caught with a box of floor tiles full of cocaine in the front seat of his Volkswagen—a gift from the cartel Los Africanos when he was their driver. Richie still claims he’s innocent and ended up in jail because he was naive. But he’s sure there’s more to this than just bad luck. When Fujimori was in power, he tells me, capturing the Los Africanos cartel was a tactical gambit of the government’s so-called war on drugs. The supposed manager of the floor tile factory double-crossed the cartel. Richie says the manager was really Montesinos, Fujimori’s shady intelligence adviser and accomplice in the corruption scandals of his latter years in office.

On the day he realized that prison would be his home for an unspecified period of time, Richie tattooed his own bicep with a demon-faced gargoyle, its legs wrapped around a high-tension cable. He also inscribed his bicep with the phrase “no drugs” to make sure nothing like this happens to him again. “I’m making my way through hell without getting burned,” he chants. Today Richie is the perfect, straight-edged inmate.

He’s been studying the Bible for months; he exercises, eats fruit and vegetables, and never hangs out at Jirón de la Unión. Every woman who visits him falls in love. He is the only tattoo artist in the prison to work in near-surgical conditions of cleanliness. In prisons, the risk of contracting AIDS through tattoo needles is very high. Richie realized that by offering “death-free tattoos” he could keep busy, express his artistic side, and earn a bit of cash. He shows me his homemade machine, built precariously out of a radio motor and a pen nib. His inspiration and designs come from magazines such as Tattoo. He says he wants to make them look like the inmates had them done at a professional studio, rather than in prison. When I talk about his stylistic choices, he becomes very serious. If he inks a design, it must be inspired by the client’s personality and have artistic nuance. He would never tattoo hearts, Christs, or mothers’ names. He’s a self-declared critic of the stick-and-poke tattoo, the kind that Calambrito’s body is covered in. Never. Ever.

“They’ll regret it afterward. They won’t always want to be ex-cons.”

It’s late by now, and we go for a walk around block seven in search of his friends. In the yard, I bump into the famous Arnie, an Israeli model who got locked up for cocaine possession. He flashes a catwalk smile my way. My guide tells me that a few days ago he tattooed a Star of David on Arnie’s arm. Now we go up to the room of two Austrian prisoners. One of them looks like a singer from a boy band. They have a poster of the star of Terminator on the wall, to inspire their morning weight-lifting sessions. The tattoos on their arms are the work of world-class tattoo guru Claus Fuhrmann. Or at least that’s what they say. And I have to admit they’re impressive. “Bribón” (rascal), I read on one of their stomachs. And a message on the other’s leg sums up his lifestyle: “Sin dolor no hay juego,” or, “no pain, no game.”

But the game’s over for me. It’s nearly five o’clock, time to get out of here for those of us who can, and I still need to find Calambrito to get my ID back. Richie only accompanies me as far as the entrance to Jirón de la Unión. He’s forbidden himself from going to that “contaminating place.” He pulls out some money and calls out: “Hey, Camina Rico, take her to twenty.” Camina Rico is an ageless creature who swings his hips as he walks, like he’s dancing. We cross the yard and get to block twenty, but there’s no sign of Calambrito. That’s what I get for trusting an assassin. The policeman doesn’t want to give me back my documents and I don’t have any money left to bribe him with. I return to block four with Camina Rico, but Calambrito is not there either. I see a familiar face:

“Have you seen Calambrito?”

“Saw him earlier. He was with his mom.” “With his mom?”

I go back to block twenty to beg the policeman for my ID because they’re about to lock the doors. He finally agrees. But before handing it to me, he writes down the name of the convict I paid five soles to get out of here, as if making a point that he was signing Calambrito’s death sentence. I hope that he really is with his mom, drunk, happy, and hiding in some less grim corner of the prison, even if he’ll have to pay for his escapade later. I walk to the prison’s main gate, and I’m stopped by Major Véliz, who tries to soften the desolate panorama: it’s his birthday, and to commemorate such an important date, the men in the Pit will be forgiven and sent back to their blocks.

On my way out, I bump into Colonel Pantaleón Valdivia. I finally dare to ask if he’s read the novel by Vargas Llosa. He says only part of it, but he can attest to it all being true. He saw it all himself when he was sent to the jungle. I say goodbye, and become part of the battalion of women who exit the prison alone. They all hold out their arms to the swarm of children who stand outside, holding cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol. In exchange for a few coins, the children wipe off the numbers the guards had written on these women’s arms—the stigma, the evidence of their history with an outlaw. I won’t allow them to erase mine.

* * *

An excerpt from Sexographies.

Gabriela Wiener

Gabriela Wiener is author of the crónicas collections Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias, and Llamada perdida. She writes regularly for the newspapers El País (Spain) and La República (Peru) and for several American and European magazines, such as Etiqueta Negra, Anfibia, Corriere della Sera, XXI, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

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