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

Thomas McFadden , Rusty Young
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (240 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2004

Rusty Young was backpacking in South America when he heard about Thomas McFadden, a convicted English drug trafficker who ran tours inside Bolivia's notorious San Pedro prison. Intrigued, the young Australian journalisted went to La Paz and joined one of Thomas's illegal tours. They formed an instant friendship and then became partners in an attempt to record Thomas's experiences in the jail. Rusty bribed the guards to allow him to stay and for the next three months he lived inside the prison, sharing a cell with Thomas and recording one of the strangest and most compelling prison stories of all time. The result is Marching Powder.

This book establishes that San Pedro is not your average prison. Inmates are expected to buy their cells from real estate agents. Others run shops and restaurants. Women and children live with imprisoned family members. It is a place where corrupt politicians and drug lords live in luxury apartments, while the poorest prisoners are subjected to squalor and deprivation. Violence is a constant threat, and sections of San Pedro that echo with the sound of children by day house some of Bolivia's busiest cocaine laboratories by night. In San Pedro, cocaine--"Bolivian marching powder"--makes life bearable. Even the prison cat is addicted.

Yet Marching Powder is also the tale of friendship, a place where horror is countered by humor and cruelty and compassion can inhabit the same cell. This is cutting-edge travel-writing and a fascinating account of infiltration into the South American drug culture.


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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

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: 6.1 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (240 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #62,351 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truth is stranger than fiction 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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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I visited Thomas in prison January 5, 2008
By KMI
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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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surreal and true! 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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite a remarkable book 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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3.0 out of 5 stars A fun read yet poorly structured January 13, 2016
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I like the book but I am in love with it. To me it feels like a failed opportunity. Instead of letting us think that we are in a very serious realistic world the author tells us within a few pages and from the back description that things are going to get really weird. That makes it so it's not suspenseful at all when you hear about a crack cat, inmates having to buy their own cell, and all the other wacky things that go on. Right from the beginning we find out that the person he bribes to get the drugs through the airport betrayed him. Right there and then you know that the whole country is going to be corrupt so there's no suspense, there's no thrill, there's there's nothing that makes you think, "Oh my God! That's crazy!" Instead you think, "ayeah of course that happenned" over and over again.
Lastly he says he does all these things while in prison and I don't want to ruin it for you but it's impossible that he could've done them all at the same time. There are other little things like that we kind of scratch your head and wonder whether not he's making things up. I'm not saying he is but he should have been able to explain how all these things were going on and not failing.
It's a good book if you have time to spare but honestly all you have to do is read the reviews with the spoilers and you'll get pretty much the whole book. Unfortunately there's not much else other then chapter after chapter of anecdotes.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible
I'm still not sure what to believe. What an unreal but true story. Will definitely read again! This should be on everyone's reading list
Published 3 days ago by kirstie
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, part of the holy trinity of prison lit; Marching Powder,...
Whether or not you like the prison lit genre, this is a must read. The setting is the surreal and bizarre world of the notorious San Pedro prison in La Paz and the main character... Read more
Published 7 days ago by Leiito
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
My sister told me to read this book and I couldn't put it down. Highly recommended! ! ! ! !
Published 11 days ago by Jaime Renee
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book, intersting, makes you think...
Very easy and interesting read. Make you really wonder how this jail system works. Makes you want to visit Bolivia and see the country for yourself, to understand it from your own... Read more
Published 18 days ago by Nog
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Great story!
Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A great book, insightful and casts a new perspective on situations relating to drug trafficking in South America.
Published 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
A very interesting book
Published 2 months ago by Marjorie Christoffersen
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Great Read!
Published 2 months ago by Kerry Leonard
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great book
Published 3 months ago by Sazzle
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent read, engaging and interesting. The ending feels ...
Decent read, engaging and interesting. The ending feels slightly rushed, but nevertheless had enough momentum to keep me curious to find out what happened to the protagonist.
Published 3 months ago by Mr Harry M Gasper
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