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

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  12,169 Ratings  ·  640 Reviews
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 journalist 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 experi ...more
ebook, 400 pages
Published May 1st 2004 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published June 1st 2003)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Jonathan Ashleigh
Oct 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While poorly written at times, this book was an incredible story about an unbelievable subject. At one point I thought the overall narrative was over (something that happens half way through a lot of non-fiction books) but that is when the book gets darker. That is what makes this book worth all of its pages. This book has made me dream of cocaine ingestion (neither positive or negative) and that is the view that is portrayed. Jailhouse tourism may never take off worldwide, but this is an excell ...more
Carol ♔Type, Oh Queen!♕
Apr 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Carol ♔Type, Oh Queen!♕ by: Petra Eggs
Drug runner Thomas McFadden was the epitome of a likeable rogue who lead a charmed life. But his luck ran out in Bolivia. The most unintentionally funny part of the book was Thomas's outrage that the corrupt Bolivian official he bribed betrayed him.

Arrested and kept in a holding cell for thirteen days, Thomas was robbed by his arresting officers which left him no money to buy food. Frozen and starving Thomas begged to be moved to a prison. The officers found this desire to be moved to prison hys
Apr 21, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
This book made me angry because it was so poorly written - such an interesting story made into something so flat and annoying. The narrator was not trustworthy - in high school lit, we would have called him an "unreliable narrator." One of the faults of the first-person narrative structure - the narrator had no independent authority and the author didn't have the skill to bolster his narrator's credibility (He would say, "I did this bad thing, but I'm not a bad guy" and my reaction would be "I d ...more
Bel Vidal
Having lived in Bolivia for the first twenty years of my life, where the goings-on inside San Pedro are public knowledge, I can vouch for the veracity of the story exposed by Young / McFadden, although it reads as stranger than fiction. The bizarre, sometimes brutal, sometimes comic revelations of Marching Powder, are not as astonishing to me as they might be to someone unfamiliar with “the way things are in South America”, but even to my acquainted eye the book still made for interesting readin ...more
Apr 25, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Ghost writer wanted!
I love a good ripping yarn - tales of adventurous stupidity, derring do and the right mix of good and bad luck. Throw in a good dose of local colour and corruption, and away you go! But not this time...
I can't believe how dull this book turned out to be. Thomas bleats on and on ad infinitum about how crazy the jail is and how loco the situation is - prisoners taking out mortgages on cells, imbibing in the purest cocain in the world, restaurants run by prisoners and even a cat
Sep 27, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Everyone has one of those friends that drink too much and tell outrageous stories. Things like "The time I sat next to Hannah Montana in first class and she totally hit on me," "The time I got lost in the NYC subways and spent the night hanging out with a bunch of homeless guys," or "The time my boat almost sank but I was saved by a magical friendly dolphin." If you're lucky, your friend is entertaining and the ridiculous stories are actually fun to listen to. If you're unlucky... your "friend" ...more
I first heard about this book a couple years ago and was interested straight away. A book set in the San Pedro prison in Bolivia. Full of corruption, crime and drugs.

What I got was full of corruption, crime and drugs. But also a fair bit of boredom and self-pity. No matter how nice he was he was still a convicted drug smuggler and dealer and I can't have any sympathy for him at all. If he'd been innocent I would have felt differently. But he was there because he deserved to be. So for me that re
Jun 29, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bookclub
This is just one of those amazing true stories. If a fiction author wrote it, you would think it was too unbelievable. I dare anyone to try to read this book and remain non-nonplussed by the fuctupedness in this story.

The story takes place in a Bolivian prison which is unlike any in the world, I imagine.

The protagonist is a drug smuggler; he was caught red-handed and is sent to a bizarre prison in which you pay to enter and pay to own a cell. The guards never really enter the prison grounds in
I bought this book because my 'book lady' in Saigon recommended it to me and boy am I glad I did!! It is the amazingly true story of a drug trafficker from England who is caught and arrested in Bolivia where he is sent to San Pedro. When he arrives he is barely alive and it seems as though he has no chance of surviving. San Pedro is like no prison I have ever imagined could exist. For starters, prisoners have to buy their own cell. They have various sections to choose from to live in depending o ...more
Jun 29, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. McFadden soon learns how to survive, and even thrive, in an atmosphere where crooked pr ...more
Um WTF...

At first, reading about the prison conditions, the prisoners lifestyles and bribery I was entertained. Not amazed, as its a third world prison and they will never amaze me... Unfortunately from about halfway through I found Thomas to be whiny and self centered. And the more I read, the more it grated.

Granted it would be hard being thrown into a third world prison, hell it would be hard being thrown into any prison, but the fact that Cocaine is glorified throughout the novel, until the
Tom Collin
Everyone I'd talked to about this book told me it was incredible. I feel that I might need to stop asking everyone about books. The headline on the back of the novel boldly states:

"A darkly comic, sometimes shocking account of life in the world's most bizarre prison"

Why is it, then, that I feel so underwhelmed by this novel? Is it because the protagonist fails to conjure up any charisma? Is it because all of the "shocking revelations" could've probably been summed up in a 5 page summary? Is it
Apr 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Where do I even start? Maybe the reason for reading. I am endlessly fascinated with correctional facilities, prisoners and corruption. I wont discuss particulars but this is one biography that you just inhale. The language is easy, and the story is magnetic. It evokes a sense of curiosity and fear; you feel the need to see these things for yourself much like the visitors that toured with him, but there is a little voice in the back of your mind that talks to what could and what does go wrong. Hi ...more
Mar 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Awesome. Fascinating look into the inside of a South American jail where the inmates have almost unlimited freedom, run their own businesses and have their families staying with them inside the prison, come and go seemingly at will, have drugs-fuelled parties (cocaine, mostly, naturally!) and invite guests in to take tours of the prison ... but start out with nothing, living amongst filth and scum in a common and dangerous central compound, having to buy their way into a cell. This was an eye op ...more
Jun 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Such a great true life story, I didn't mind too much about the way it was written. What a fascinating life he has led and lived to tell the story. Loved it, would read again.
Aug 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved this book.
Jun 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Concur w/ Raghu's 10/25/10 review, much of which is duplicated below:

Rusty Young's 'Marching Powder' is the real-life account of Thomas McFadden, a black Englishman and cocaine trafficker, and his nearly five years in the San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia. What is bizarre and unusual and incredible about the book is the nature of the San Pedro prison. One is used to hearing about notorious third-world prisons where corruption, crime, violence and inhumanity is rampant. Police brutality and cor
Lizzy Chandler
I read Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail over one wild, windy weekend, only getting up off the couch to eat, say hi to my long-suffering partner and sleep. Then I read the reviews.

Strange, but I agreed with both the 5-star and the 1-star comments. It's a fascinating, page-turning story, told in a simple, easy-to-read style. It has touches of surreal comic brilliance, as it tells of the narrator Thomas's survival through incredible hardships
So, this wasn't terribly well written - if you're after a masterpiece, don't read it. But it's a fascinating story with lots of descriptions involving corruption and how money buys influence. And how corruption focuses around a lack of basic human rights.

I started reading this book as I've had a couple of friends who travelled through South America and said that EVERYONE was reading it (similar to One Day or Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on the London Tube). I can understand why it would be fascin
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very easy book to read and if you enjoy reading prison non-fiction books then this should be one already on your list.

Thomas McFadden is an Englishman sent to a Bolivian prison for drug trafficking. Unlike other prison books that detail the horrifying conditions (there's those too) this presents a completely different eye opener, such as tourist visits, corruption (paying for day trips, nights out, Satellite TV and gaming consoles and anything else you can imagine) there's a unique 'unofficial'
Dec 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love the show Locked Up Abroad so I knew that I will love the book as the story is usually quite similar. Someone gets busted smuggling drugs and gets thrown in foreign prison, where the standards are much lower than in the wester world:-) That is exactly what happened to Thomas, professional drug smuggler, who got thrown into Bolivian notorius San Pedro Prison that is a world on its own. Once you get thrown in, you have to buy your own cell, provide your own food and everything else. The pris ...more
This is a fantastic story written very amateurishly. The first two thirds of the book focuses on the La Paz prison and the idea that such a thing could exist - the entire USP of the book. However, that is the part which is lousy, and you would be better advised to stick to the Wiki page. By the end of it though, one does feel for Thomas, and the indulgent adventure that he turned it into.

The small length of the chapters grate one's senses, and one gets a sense again and again that the book was
Jan 22, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating story on a convicted English drug trafficker in San Pedro, a Bolivian prison.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading how San Pedro was run and about the people and politics in Bolivia but the story dragged in places and it was not written well. At times I found myself wondering how much of the story was true as Thomas, the English drug trafficker, spends most of his time stoned or drunk whilst in prison and surely this would affect his memory and ability to retell his story?
I also found it di
Will White
Jan 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thomas McFadden's story of life in San Pedro Bolivian prison is simply remarkable. There is no way to understand the unbelievable everyday life in San Pedro without reading the book and Thomas is just the man to tell the story. The book starts off with the fast paced story of his arrest while trying to smuggle drugs out of the country. But once arrested, the characters inside the prison give the book it's depth and complexity. Thomas becomes the unofficial tour guide of San Pedro and along the w ...more
I don't get the 4 star average for this one. At first I thought it was beacuse I had listened to the audio, and the main character who is British and spent 5 years in a Bolivian prison had a South American accent, really? But as I got further along I realised it was the character of Thomas that got to me. He always seemed so hard done by, full of excuses and stories. Yes I believe about paying for your cell, but there's plenty of others I don't believe.

I also don't get why tourists would ever wa
Sep 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. The corruption, the drugs, the crime and all the details placed me right there sitting and listening to his story. Good insight to what happens in other countries and makes our convicts look like they're on an all expenses paid for holiday. A friend of mine went to San Pedro prison on a holiday in 2011 and said the similarities were pretty spot on. Whilst at times we as readers were made to feel sorry for Thomas Mcfadden, at the end of the day he was a drug smuggler and knew w ...more
Liz Parissenti
I was invested in finishing this book because the storyline is fascinating, but I wouldn't say that I ultimately enjoyed it, or that I felt any sympathy for the narrator. He is remorseless and yet self-pitying, a truly unattractive (and frightening, given his work as a drug dealer and trafficker) combination.

It's an intimate look into a crazy prison system, and so it's interesting and informative in that respect. However, I finished the book feeling more disgusted with the narrator than the pri
Matt Williams
This was an amazing and gripping read. The story itself is absolutely crazy. So, why did I only give it three stars? Well after reading the book, as it all sunk in, I suddenly thought back to the scene where McFadden tears the compressed cocaine apart and it puffs out all over the room, then realised . . . THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN! Coke that compressed wouldn't even budge. So after spotting one porky, I had to wonder how many more were in there. I mean, is half of this story total bullshit? Proba ...more
Waseem Sheriff
Feb 01, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Given how imaginary this story seems, it is baffling that this book is actually an account of a real prison in Bolivia!

Amongst a grim and morbid setting in the San Pedro prison, where survival of the fittest is the order of the day, emerges a prison tale (a true one) like none ever heard before. On display, is human character at it's best and worst.

Everything goes. All systems go. Atleast in San Pedro.
A friend recommended this book to me and said I wouldn't be able to put it down. He was right. What a riveting story!
It had me from the very first page. Thomas McFadden's account of what goes on inside Bolivia's San Pedro prison is completely shocking but so intriguing.
This is one of those strange stories that you just want to tell everyone to check out for themselves. Highly recommended!
It is also being made into a movie, in which Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle are producing. Can't wait!
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If I loved this book, what similar books would you recommend? 3 22 Dec 15, 2014 12:09AM  
Total pages 1 14 Jun 07, 2012 02:19AM  
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  • The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison
  • Mr. Nice
  • Forget You Had a Daughter: Doing Time in the 'Bangkok Hilton'
  • Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru
  • At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel
  • The Gringo Trail
  • Hotel Kerobokan
  • In the Shadow of the Volcano: One Ex-Intelligence Official's Journey through Slums, Prisons, and Leper Colonies to the Heart of Latin America
  • The People Smuggler: The True Story Of Ali Al Jenabi, The 'Oskar Schindler Of Asia'
  • Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade
  • More Terrible Than Death: Drugs, Violence, and America's War in Colombia
  • Welcome to Hell: One Man's Fight for Life Inside the Bangkok Hilton
  • The Dig Tree: The Story of Bravery, Insanity, and the Race to Discover Australia's Wild Frontier
  • High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler
  • Inca-Kola: A Traveller's Tale of Peru
  • Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge
  • Sweet Land Stories

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“You have fallen badly, señor gringo. Bribery is a very serious crime in this country. You will have to pay.” 2 likes
“Doing time is a real test of friendship. None of my old friends passed that test. Maybe none of them had even noticed that I was missing. To me, that made it even more special that people I had never met before came to visit me and did stick by me. Most of the travellers who had visited me were just passing through La Paz and couldn’t visit more than once or twice. However, many of them stayed in contact by letters and email. I glued the postcards they sent me from all over the world onto my wall. I received mail from the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, England, Israel, Turkey and Japan. Whenever I felt sad, I would read what the tourists had written to me, and I would soon feel better again. Even though I only met many of these people once, I knew that they were real friends. You know how? I had nothing to give them. I couldn’t give them money, I couldn’t give them status, I couldn’t take them to fancy places and buy drinks for them. All I had were my stories and who I was, and that was enough for them to want to stay in contact. For the first time in my life, that was enough.” 0 likes
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