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Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail Paperback

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; 1st edition (May 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312330340
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312330347
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 6.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #178,747 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This memoir of a British drug dealer's nearly five years inside a Bolivian prison provides a unique window on a bizarre and corrupt world. McFadden, a young black man from Liverpool arrested for smuggling cocaine, finds himself forced to pay for his accommodations in La Paz's San Pedro Prison, the first of many oddities in a place where some inmates keep pets and rich criminals can sustain a lavish lifestyle. The charismatic McFadden soon learns how to survive, and even thrive, in an atmosphere where crooked prison officials turn up at his private cell to snort lines of coke. By chance, he stumbles on an additional source of income when he begins giving tours of the prison to foreign tourists, a trade that leads to the mention in a Lonely Planet guidebook that attracts the attention of his coauthor, Young, who was backpacking in South America at the time. McFadden's unapologetic self-serving story will attract little pity as he freely admits to countless cocaine sales for which he was never held accountable. Once the authors chronicle the novel aspects of life in San Pedro, from which McFadden was released in 2000, the narrative loses momentum. The book would have benefited from some judicious editing and some objective perspective on the veracity of McFadden's story.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

On a whim, Young decided it might be interesting to visit notorious San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, so he signed up for an illegal tour. The tour guide was Thomas McFadden, an inmate who had been imprisoned for drug smuggling. They struck up a friendship, and Young bribed the guards to let him stay "inside" for three months, where he recorded the particulars of life in one of the world's most peculiar prisons. San Pedro is like a city: inmates must "buy" their cells from real estate agents, drug lords live in the high style to which they are accustomed, and the destitute, as always, live a hand-to-mouth existence. Like most cities, San Pedro is a lively if decidedly cutthroat place, and Young, who teaches English in Colombia, writes about it as if he were Joseph Mitchell prowling Greenwich Village. The book is filled with characters ranging from outrageous to inspiring, and Young layers on the texture--sights, sounds, smells--until we feel as though we have visited the place. Travel literature of a very special and captivating kind. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Enjoyed this book - it's a very interesting story, well written and easy to read.
I purchased this book after reading the blog of an English backpacker who had made his way into South America en route to finishing up a year on the road.
C. Harrill
It recounts the story of Thomas McFadden, a convicted drug trafficker, and all his struggles and reversals of fortune inside the worlds craziest prison.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By K. Maxwell on January 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
In 1995, Thomas McFadden was arrested at El Alto airport in La Paz in Bolivia for drug smuggling in a sting operation set up by a local policeman. Thomas was then sent to the local San Pedro prison after almost being starved to death by the local police because he didn't have any cash on him to pay for food in their holding pens.

San Pedro prison turned out to be the strangest place Thomas had ever been in his life. It was a microcosm of the entire Bolivian economy. People ran shops, made and traded drugs, bribed all the police and guards on a daily basis and had their wives and children live with them in jail.

Thomas is honest and straightforward in stating that before his arrest he was a professional drug smuggler and after his introduction to prison a regular cocaine taker as well. He's not an angel, but this is a fascinating story of good times and bad times and the friends and enemies of life in the strangest prison you'll ever read about. The moral of this story is - if you have to go to prison in South America make sure its San Pedro and that you are rich and any of other nationality aside from USA. "Gringos" can survive these prisons but they can also be brutal to people that they hate and this book shows you both the light and dark sides of San Pedro prison and a place that was at one point one of South America's strangest tourist attractions.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By L. Rephann on July 20, 2004
Format: Paperback
I picked this book up based on the cover design, then read the back jacket and decided it was a book for me! I love "true life" stories and this is one of the more bizarre ones you will ever read.

This is the story of a prisoner as told by a man who came to befriend him over repeated visits to the prison. The plot centers around the man's 4+ year stint in Bolivian prison, but tells so much more than this story. "Marching Powder" delves into the rampant corruption inside the prison, the bizarre, surreal microcosm of the prison, and one man's odyssey to be released from prison and continue with his life. If you have seen the film "Midnight Express," this book is reminiscent of it.

The story takes place almost entirely inside a Bolivian prison. Life inside this prison has its own set of rules and regulations, and is unlike anything you could imagine. The prison has its own economy, its own neighborhoods, and a cast of characters (including a crack-addicted cat) that could have come out of a movie.

The book moves quickly, the writing is fluid and vivid, the characters are larger than life, and some of the details can be jaw-dropping.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By KMI on January 5, 2008
Format: Paperback
In early 1998, while traveling solo through South America, I was told I had to visit Thomas McFadden when I got to LaPaz. After I visited Thomas, I told two other travelers, so I can see how his tour business was so large. When I came back to the USA, I only told a few people about visiting Thomas because being a female traveling alone it wasn't the smartest thing I ever did. So, when I read about this book in Oprah, I was so excited to read his story. I thought the book was very well written, easy to read and very entertaining; I think everyone who reads this book will like it.

Some of the reviews don't believe his is for real, but I know he is. As far as embellishing I can't comment on that, but he is a very likeable guy. I spent the day with him as his visitor. He was extremely courteous and nice. In the afternoon, I didn't know how to repay him for showing me around so I asked what I could do for him. He wanted a pizza from outside the prison. When I came back with the Pizza it was when visiting hours were ending, so Thomas bribed the guards to let me in. I didn't know all this until later. I was brought to his section and locked in. At that moment, I was pretty scared. But, once I found Thomas, we had a fun time eating p
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Glenn Martin on May 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
Thomas McFadden is a drug trafficker. Oh don't worry, he freely admits to it in this book and he was actually caught trying to smuggle drugs out of South America when he was double crossed by a customs official.

What I found in this book was a surprisingly funny, yet also dark account of life in Bolivia's San Pedro prison. Basically if you don't have any money to bribe the guards you don't even get food to eat let alone a cell to call your own. That's right, you have to pay for your own cell like it was real estate!

The book is written by Rusty Young, an Australian backpacking in South America who had heard of a guy in San Pedro who was giving tours and overnight stays in the prison, for a price. Three months later Rusty emerged with Thomas' story of mob justice, violence, bribery, drugs, women, love and even a night out on the town.

Thomas never really apologises for anything he has done, and if anything he gives us quite an insight into the global drug trafficking business. But most of the book focuses on Thomas' time in San Pedro and his often fight to stay alive. I'm not normally a non-fiction fan, but I have to admit this book was VERY interesting!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Sinbad on August 11, 2008
Format: Paperback
Marching Powder is a ghost written account of an Englishman's incarceration in an Bolivian jail.

Whilst the book is no great work of literature, the amazing world that it uncovers is worthy of reading about, and intriging enough to make you want to read on and on.

Unlike other prison memoirs that I have read, such as The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison (highly recomended) - this prison is not the ultra violent place you might imagine.

As long as you have the money, prisoners can live a reasonably comfortable life, set up businesses, have friends over to stay, even go out night clubbing!

A good read - purley for the insight into such a weird world.
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