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

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  20,918 ratings  ·  922 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 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 expe ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published May 1st 2004 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published June 1st 2003)
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Average rating 4.28  · 
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Petra X living life blissfully,not through books!
This is one of the easiest books to handsell in my shop. It's ideal for a long haul flight but just as good read at home during these long nights of curfew after Irma, Maria and the two flash flood tropical storms the media didn't mention.

Thomas McFadden was a drug dealer in South America. He did it for the kicks and the money, he didn't do drugs himself. He relied on paying off a network of thoroughly corrupt officials and never gave thought to one of them might sell him out. Which they did.

Jonathan Ashleigh
Oct 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 21, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂
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
Bel Vidal
Oct 12, 2013 rated it it was ok
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 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, bolivia
When Thomas McFadden made a detour through Bolivia to get five kilos of cocaine through to Europe, justice finally caught up with him. Smuggling drugs around the world since the tender age of 15, McFadden has been successful in destroying hundreds of lives around the world before he even landed in Bolivia. As it turns out, you can't trust criminals and he found himself captured even though he had paid off his bribes. You can tell I don't like the man, can't you?

The book starts off with McFadden
Apr 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Feb 03, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: yeartoclear
This real life account of an English drug dealer’s time inside San Pedro prison reads more like a thriller- even if only 10% is true, then it’s a pretty crazy place- from having to buy your own cell to manufacturing the best cocaine in Bolivia, from wholesale bribery to prison tour guides, this has it all. Easy to read, with very little of the violence you’d suppose from this kind of story, the book offers a glimpse into a very different world.

Sep 27, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Jun 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
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 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
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
Alex Givant
Feb 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book about inside life in one of the most dangerous prisons in the world and what people do to survive it.
Jun 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Marching Powder details the bizarrely true story of Thomas McFadden who spent four and a half years in the infamous San Pedro prison in Bolivia. The book is written by an Australian backpacker who visits McFadden in prison before striking up a friendship and deciding to detail McFadden’s life and experiences within the notoriously corrupt prison and judicial system.

As the title suggests, there are plenty of drug-related references and violence splattered throughout its pages which include “coca
Angelique Simonsen
Holy hell what a story. Breaks your heart at the absolute lows humans can achieve but at the same time it restores your faith that there will be a few good eggs amongst it all when the chips are down. Gripping and powerful and hard to believe at times.
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
Loredana Perri
Jul 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a crazy read. What a bloody rollercoaster. So mind blowing it's hard to believe it's real. I spent alot of this book reminding myself I wasn't reading a fiction book. I loved the opening chapter as a preface into how the author turned his relationship with an inmate into a book.
I wouldn't say it's perfectly written but what I can guarantee is that you will be taken on an intense, fascinating ride into the experience of a cocaine dealer and his unreal time spent in arguably the most famou
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
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
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is the true story of Thomas MacFadden, who on a trip to South American got caught by the police with drugs at the airport in Bolivia. He is sentenced and sent to the San Pedro jail in Peru. McFadden is confounded by the prison set-up. To get a room to live in, you have to buy a cell of your own. Families live with their relative who is a prisoner in their prison cell and businesses are run by the prisoners in the jail. Drugs are prevalent also in the prison and are a main source of revenue ...more
Apr 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
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
Chris Steeden
Sep 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
San Pedro Prison, La Paz, Bolivia. My word. what a place. Let Thomas McFadden be your guide round this unbelievable institution. You will certainly be in for a journey. Be careful as it is dangerous and I am not sure that Thomas is a completely reliable guide but just go with the flow. You will meet the weird, wonderful, psychotic, mellow and downright crazy inmates and guards.
This non-fiction book about a notoriously corrupt Bolivian prison provides an eye-opening picture of La Paz prison. However I didn't buy the entire "true story" of inmate Thomas McFadden. Call me a cynic I guess. ...more
Jun 09, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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. ...more
Karin Pearson
I was really keen to read this after finishing Colombiano - but this turned out to be a very long and hard read in terms of the content. Quite shocking in parts and unbelievable of what goes on behind closed doors in the San Pedro prison system. On one hand it was hard to feel sorry for some of the people in the book who made a conscious decision to traffic or use drugs - and they 'made their bed so they should lie in it' so speak, but the corruption and police brutality was very hard to compreh ...more
Ayan Roy Choudhury
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating, disturbing, intense.

When I visited Bolivia, we walked by the prison without even knowing that's what it was. There was just a big concrete wall. Later, a tour guide walked us past the building. She warned us not to pick up any potatoes off the sidewalk. Prisoners hollowed out potatoes, filled them with cocaine, and then threw them outside for couriers to pick up. This was in 2018. Evidently not much has changed since this book was published in 2003.

The guide also pointed out the ma
Ross Barnett
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I notice that there has been some mixed responses to this book by Rusty Young, some people even found it boring. What?? As with Colombiano I again found his writing style both refreshing and chilling and any book that keeps me hooked liked this one did deserves the 5 star rating I have given it. Both his novels have been based on interviews he has done with people who are either too scared or unable to write about their own experiences. He obviously takes a little bit of licence at times but wha ...more
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If I loved this book, what similar books would you recommend? 4 61 Feb 12, 2018 12:07PM  
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Rusty Young (born 1975) is the Australian-born author of the international bestseller Marching Powder, the true story of an English drug smuggler in Bolivia’s notorious San Pedro Prison and the bestselling novel, Colombiano, a fact-meets-fiction revenge thriller about a Colombian boy who sets out to avenge his father’s death.

Rusty grew up in Sydney, and studied Finance and Law at the University o

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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.” 1 likes
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