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

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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.

400 pages, Paperback

First published June 1, 2003

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About the author

Rusty Young

5 books271 followers
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 of New South Wales. He was backpacking in South America when he heard about Thomas McFadden, a convicted English drug trafficker who ran tours inside Bolivia's famous San Pedro Prison. Curious about the reason behind McFadden's huge popularity, the law graduate 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. After securing Thomas's release, Rusty lived in Colombia where he taught the English language and wrote Thomas's story. The memoir, Marching Powder, was released in 2003 and was an international bestseller.

Following the success of Marching Powder, Rusty was recruited as a Program Director of the US government's Anti-Kidnapping Program in Colombia. He was part of a team that trained local police, military and SWAT teams in kidnapping response and hostage rescue. At the time, Colombia had an average of eight kidnappings a day. It was a role fraught with danger and Rusty lived part-time on a military base, drove a Level III armoured vehicle, communicated with colleagues via encrypted radio and changed houses in Bogotá a dozen times. He kept this work completely secret.

Through police and army contacts, Rusty was able to interview special forces soldiers, including snipers and undercover intelligence agents, about their work. He also interviewed captured child soldiers from the two main terrorist organisations – FARC and Autodefensas. The former soldiers, some as young at twelve when they joined, described in great detail their reasons for enlisting, their hatred of the enemy, their gruelling military training, their political indoctrination and their horrific experiences in battle. Once Rusty had earned their trust, they also opened up to him about gruesome tortures they were forced to witness or participate in.

These interviews, along with Rusty’s extensive in-the-field knowledge about cocaine trafficking, formed the factual setting and background for his novel Colombiano, a fact-meets-fiction revenge thriller.

Colombiano was published in Australia in August 2017 and was the highest-selling Australian fiction title that month. It will be released worldwide in 2018.

In 2011, Rusty co-founded the Colombian Children’s Foundation of Australia, which helps rehabilitate and resocialise former child soldiers. Currently, his house in Bogotá is the charity’s headquarters. Ten percent of his royalties of Colombiano will go to the foundation, which has almost 200 former child soldiers under care.

Rusty also fronts the documentary Wildlands (2017) in which he interviews notorious characters formerly involved in the cocaine trade, including George Jung – famously played by Johnny Depp in the movie Blow – and, more terrifyingly, John Velasquez or “Popeye”, Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man and one of the deadliest hitmen in cartel history.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,054 reviews
February 1, 2019
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.

Newly convicted he arrived at the prison to be told he needed to rent or buy a cell, and if he had the money, he could have a very nice cell with all mod cons (for a prison) otherwise, it was the cold flags outside. The prisoners run the prison. They are in charge of job and food distribution, there are makeshift cafes, food booths and little shops. Their families are allowed to spend time, including nights with them. It is a brutal place full of violent men administering justice including public executions. The prison staff just seem to handle the interface between the prison and the outside world. Mostly they are extremely corrupt, so anything is available to a prisoner with money.

Eventually Thomas gets his act together and has a very nice set up. So nice he has a kind of bed and breakfast going, and Lonely Planet recommends Thomas' cell as an unmissable place to stay when in Bolivia. Really. That's a very good illustration of truth being stranger than fiction.

Thomas doesn't finish his sentence there though. He gets sent to a much more brutal and soul-destroying prison where has no freedom. That obviously taught him a lesson as he's a chicken farmer in Kenya now, and keeps his head well below the paraphet.

Read it, just brilliant, just amazing.

Read Nov/Dec 2014. Reviewed 30 Nov 2017
Profile Image for Sarah.
215 reviews5 followers
October 7, 2013
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 don't know about that bucko, you sound like a smarmy drug dealer, with few morals; the fact that you got caught and sent to a really crappy prison doesn't make you a good person or worthy of sympathy."

Also, there was no story arch. The chapters were either stand alone vignettes ("And so, in 1000 words, that's how I started a store") that were disconnected from any sort of greater structure, or they ended with the most obvious lead ins ever ("And so ends the story of my interactions with that person. Or so I thought. Little did I know that they were just beginning."). Its okay once, but every chapter in the second half of the book ended that way. I was really disappointed because I bought this book while traveling in South America and I was very interested in the subject matter. But in the end, I was so annoyed with the book that I rushed to finish just so I would be done with it.

Also, am I the only one who is not shocked at what was going on? Do people not read the newspaper? Crazy stuff happens all over the world. Also, when I'm told by the narrator over and over that people don't believe what happens in the prison and that the prisononers have to pay for their own cells, after a while, I get it. People have to buy their own cells - I'll not be shocked.
Profile Image for Jonathan Ashleigh.
Author 1 book119 followers
January 11, 2016
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 excellent story of how prison tours began somewhere and at times the poor spelling seemed to work for the story (and maybe that is just how Australians spell).
Profile Image for Bel Vidal.
Author 1 book5 followers
October 22, 2013
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 reading.
My only objection is that McFadden often makes outrageous statements referring not only to San Pedro prisoners, but Bolivians in general. Despite the fact that he only spent a few days in Bolivia before being incarcerated, McFadden seems to believe that San Pedro is a microcosm of Bolivian Society. Take, for example: “hardly anyone in Bolivia admits to taking drugs, but… how could you not take cocaine in a country where a gram is cheaper than a bear?”
Not happy with saying that all Bolivians are junkies, McFadden goes on to say that they are all stupid, “because there’s not much oxygen up here… the Bolivian brains don’t develop properly”.
Thankfully, this Bolivian-born Australian, whose brain developed fully despite its early exposure to altitude, is aware that those are not Rusty Young’s conclusions but Thomas McFadden’s. It is obvious that his memories and reasoning are distorted by his own addiction to cocaine and sleeping pills, not to mention his lack of education. Alas, his views might contribute to reinforce existing misconceptions about an entire country, and its people.
While thousands of struggling Bolivians make their livelihood in the controversial coca leaf plantations, the majority of them have never seen as much as a gram of the white powder that has made their country infamous.
I have no doubt that Rusty Young would have been able to offer a much more balanced, informed and humane insight into this subject had he used his own voice and perspective for the narrative. This is demonstrated by the documentary on San Pedro Jail that he produced for ABC’s Foreign Correspondent, which was about the jail, and not about Thomas McFadden.
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
797 reviews586 followers
April 4, 2017
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 hysterically funny. Thomas soon found out why, starting with being transported by taxi to San Pedro prison - & being expected to pay.

Thomas survived in San Pedro by his charm & business acumen. A terrifying place made bearable by copious amounts of drugs.

Written in the first person this is Thomas's story. So was Rusty merely an editor or recorder? If the writer of the story, some extra insights would have been nice.

Both men still appear to be close friends so obviously Thomas is happy for Young to claim sole credit for writing this.

Profile Image for Kavita.
760 reviews370 followers
March 30, 2019
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 at the La Paz airport, waiting to smuggle drugs through the customs when he gets arrested. With this, his saga starts. He is tortured by the drug police, but the interesting part of the story comes when he is actually shifted to the San Pedro prison. He finds that inmates have to pay for everything there, including the taxi fare to reach there and an entry fee to have the honour of going to prison. I won't elaborate much on this since McFadden talks in detail about it.

Life in San Pedro is like being in a slum area. It has its own economy and its own class system. This leaves prisoners not much better off than on the outside. With poverty-stricken prisoners most of whom end up in prison in the first place due to poverty being expected to finance themselves and their families completely, it is no surprise that crime thrives in the prison even more than it does on the outside. McFadden, however, was not that poor and he was able to get by with his prison tours to foreigners.

The focus of the book is on McFadden's prison tours, a novelty that even Lonely Planet recommends! He would bring in tourists and they would pay an official entry fee to enter. To stay longer or spend the night, they would then pay a bribe. For most foreigners, this was the experience of a lifetime. Many ended up doing cocaine in prison, which McFadden supplied. These tourists were what kept his spirits up during his time in San Pedro and some of them help him out. He also falls in love during this time.

Drugs play a huge role in this narrative. San Pedro produces the best cocaine in all of Bolivia, and it comes dirt cheap. Unable to take the squalid life inside, many inmates turn to drugs - including our hero. After ruining the lives of many, McFadden now ruins his own by turning to cocaine. I am not sure how ubiquitous drugs are in the prison system and in Bolivia in general, but McFadden makes it sound as if everyone there took cocaine as you and I would take water. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that he was majorly into drugs and drug culture even if he never actually consumed it before his stint in prison. McFadden also believes that everyone in Bolivia consumes cocaine, which is factually incorrect.

The author, Rusty Young, does not show up at all until the last few pages. The book itself is written as if McFadden is writing an autobiography, and Young's voice is absent. This means that the reader gets a full dose of "Yea for drugs!" which can put off many, including me. McFadden has no regrets about smuggling poison around and he doesn't seem to be able to understand that he has done something WRONG. He talks about his criminal career as if it were a game. But really, a decent person wanting those kind of exciting adventures would try bungee jumping or white water rafting, not drug smuggling.

The novelty of the book did work on me and I enjoyed reading it. I was able to put aside the fact that McFadden was a douchebag. The kind of corruption and violence rampant within the prison was horrifying. Poverty in Bolivia sounds pretty bad and the way that the prisoners hated Americans brings out how American interference in the area botched up farmers' lives in the country. The American war on drugs meant that they try to eliminate coca production in the country, which ultimately led to a lot of unemployment and poverty, increasing prison populations.

The book is well worth a read if only to know and understand something that we have never come across before. But if you are someone who has to absolutely like a protagonist in order to love the book, better skip it. There is no getting around the fact that McFadden was a drug smuggler, and he did it for the thrills, and he never regretted his career and the lives he destroyed. The only consolation is that he claims he no longer smuggles drugs. But he wouldn't tell us if he were doing that, would he?
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 1 book24 followers
April 26, 2012
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 that is a crack addict. It's got all the ingredients for a heady gumbo of danger, corruption and "there but for the grace of God go I".
I felt like I was stuck at a dinner party next to the world's worst bore - he'd done everything, he was an expert at many things, but he'd been betrayed by people he trusted and blah blah blah. Everytime I'd start to put the book down, something vaguely interesting would happen and I'd perservere with another meandering story that disappeared into a cull-de-sac of nothingness.
By the end, I was seriously hoping that Thomas would end up as someone's bitch and they'd live happily ever after. It would make it easier to pass all that cocaine, I guess.
It did make me feel like a big, fat line of hoo-haa though. So, it was successful on a Pavlovian level.
Profile Image for Emma.
976 reviews976 followers
February 3, 2018
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.

Profile Image for Bryce.
1,235 reviews31 followers
September 29, 2010
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" is a jackass and you start making up your own stories, in order to get away from him.

Unfortunately Thomas McFadden strikes me as the second kind of friend. And unfortunately again, he managed to land himself a publishing deal.

While I have no doubt that prisons in Bolivia are filled with corruption, drugs and danger, I'm not willing to believe much of what McFadden tells me. He manages to be both a criminal mastermind and a Really Nice Guy; manages to meet the Woman Of His Dreams; manages to survive against all odds and become the Big Man on (Prison) Campus. And manages to make James Fray look like a credible story-teller.

So while the concept of the book is really fascinating, next time I'll find myself some nice nonfiction with an extensive bibliography in the back and leave this sordid memoir stuff to the Oprah/Jerry Springer crowd.
Profile Image for Donnie.
131 reviews3 followers
July 4, 2010
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 general, and the prisoners are essentially allowed to live a "free" life within the prison walls. Some prisoners live with their wives and children, some turn their cells into tiendas and restaurants.

The shit is just wild. There is lots of coke and violence in the book, and much spectacle to it, which makes it entertaining.

It did lack a certain humility, or something akin to that. I mean I completely empathized with the main character's experience in the prison, though it was fascinating it was horrible. However, there is a lack of reform or an understanding of personal responsibility. Everyone makes mistakes, and in no way did the crime of smuggling coke fit the punishment the main character experienced, but perhaps it fit the stupidity of the crime. Lesson here: do not smuggle coke. The payoff is not worth the risk.

There is a touch of exploration on how the US war on drugas effects countries like Bolivia. That probably would have been interesting for the author to explore further.

At any rate it is a great read and an amazing story.
Profile Image for Kim.
401 reviews180 followers
March 15, 2012
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 really took away from the book. He was trying to sound innocent and garner sympathy but I just didn't buy it.

I wish there had been more on the actual culture in the prison, not just Thomas getting drunk and high. I wanted a hard hitting expose with the facts to back it up, not the whining of a convicted criminal.

This book could have been a lot better. It wasn't bad and once past the really whiny part about 1/3 the way through it moved quicker and was more interesting. But there was a lot left out that could have vastly improved it.
Profile Image for Michelle.
38 reviews1 follower
November 29, 2012
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 on how much money they have and in many ways in seems as thought they are living in a small community rather than jail. While his prison life glamorous at first, there are many times through the book when McFadden is reminded that he is indeed still in prison. This book is truly amazing and I would recommend it to everyone! It was very similar to the show Locked Up Abroad, only so much better!
Profile Image for Manda.
108 reviews
June 30, 2009
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 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 co-author, Young, who was backpacking in South America at the time.

"Marching Powder" gives a great deal of insight into Bolivian culture and society, albeit through the lens of San Pedro prison. Although there is no follow-up to what happens to McFadden after he leaves Bolivia--and there is also no objective perspective to McFadden's story, I highly recommend "Marching Powder" to all; it's a very easy read for vacation or a long road trip.
Profile Image for thereadytraveller.
127 reviews26 followers
November 1, 2017
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 “cocaine tours” for foreign backpackers that became so popular they ended up being written up in the Lonely Planet guides.

Told in an honest and open fashion it’s hard not to like the one-time drug trafficker and this story will have you reading line after line (get it?!) into the wee hours of the night.
Profile Image for Chris Steeden.
432 reviews
October 3, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,346 reviews4,863 followers
September 25, 2013
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.
2 reviews
January 18, 2023
Excellent read. After seeing the pictures at the end of the book, I was shocked to find that the image I had in my head of San Pedro Prison, Thomas’ cell and the courtyard were almost identical to the pics. Even the colour of the room which I don’t recall being mentioned
Profile Image for Mariaan.
85 reviews
June 2, 2022
WOW what a story! I would love to know where Thomas is in the world 22 years later..Joh San Pedro prison is not for the faint hearted.. I read this book in record time.. brilliant
Profile Image for Angelique Simonsen.
1,285 reviews23 followers
October 26, 2018
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.
13 reviews3 followers
March 28, 2021
I, like many others, have a fascination with crime, jail and the inside story.
This book is engrossing because we see a South American prison through relatable western eyes, but I stayed on the hook for the aspects of Thomas' personality that I couldn't relate to: drug dealing, consumption and violence.

I really flew through the book, the imagery was engaging and it was quite an easy read. I felt at stages it over glorified travelling and drug trade. It would have been interesting to read more on the societal attitudes towards drugs at the time, including more exploration around the perspectives of those in such vehement opposition - those that actually created the story for Thomas by sending him to jail.
Profile Image for Andrew McMillen.
Author 3 books33 followers
December 19, 2017
It has been some time since I've been as absorbed in a book-length character study as this. I was totally taken in by the strength of Rusty Young's storytelling here, but he is not the star of this book. Instead, it is a biography of an English drug trafficker, Thomas McFadden, who was imprisoned in Bolivia's San Pedro prison on drug charges. It's far from a normal prison: Australian author Young met McFadden when he visited San Pedro as a tourist and sampled the cocaine made in-house. "He sniffed a line, slid the CD case over to me and then started talking," Young writes in the first chapter, which is the only one told from his perspective. "Soon, I did not want him to stop."

From that point on, 'Marching Powder' is a fast-paced and entertaining tale of McFadden's years behind bars. The drug trafficker is an expert storyteller, and Young's narrative is so immersive that I found myself sketching mental pictures of San Pedro before too long. Inside the prison, there's an corrupt economy that McFadden can barely comprehend at first. Inmates are expected to buy their cells from real estate agents; shops and restaurant operate behind bars, and women and children live with their imprisoned family members. These inner workings are laid out in colourful detail, and once you're invested in the weird world of San Pedro, you have no choice but to keep reading to know what happens next.

"If prisons are no more than schools for further criminality, then San Pedro prison was the International University of Cocaine, where you could study under some of South America's leading professors: laboratory chemists, expert accountants and worldly businessmen," McFadden notes halfway through. The entrepreneur decides to capitalise on the knowledge and experience of his fellow inmates by offering guided tours to wide-eyed visitors, like Young, and these visits become a big part of how he manages to stay positive throughout most of his time inside, though he is bit by periods of depression for his seemingly hopeless plight.

Importantly, McFadden is self-aware of his storytelling skills, too. In the midst of a massive, all-night party held in his 'cell', he shrugged at the sight of some cocaine that was accidentally spilled onto the carpet by a remorseful New Zealand tourist. The Kiwi's punishment? To cut up ten more lines of coke, as quick as he can, to make up for lost time. "I knew that everyone in that room would be telling the story everywhere they went for the rest of their lives," quipped McFadden, and that remark could also apply to the extraordinary story captured in this book.
Profile Image for CedarMoon.
104 reviews3 followers
February 11, 2012
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 last five paged chapter really reinforces the reason that Thomas is imprisoned in the first place.

The fact that we, the reader, are asked to buy into the unfairness and unjustness of firstly Thomas' betrayal in the original bust, and again later on after all the bribery, well he was trying to traffic cocaine, so sad to bad.

That throughout the whole novel, other than whiny he is presented as a nice likeable guy, but reality is that he was selling cocaine again whilst in prison after being charged with trafficking....

Furthermore, while the prison itself is amazing, I wonder if it would not be preferable to those in a first world country. The city set up meant that he basically had a life while doing time, made friends, made enemies, all the while continuing on his chosen profession of drug selling, scams and all round 'nice guy'.

His rise to one of the most important guy is questionable. There is nothing to support this. Its really just hearsay. I also felt he 'scammed' the people that would visit, from the Christian Ministry service, to the Mormon guy, to the Tourists. The whole book had the feeling of 'I didn't snort cocaine by choice, mister, it kinda just fell up my nose'. Thomas holds himself accountable for nothing.

yeah he is stellar (sarcasm)... Perhaps his biggest scam yet is on the readers...

Profile Image for Loredana Perri.
41 reviews3 followers
August 27, 2020
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 famous jail in the world.
There are some seriously dark and disturbing moments but softened by some uplifting ones as well.
Loved the images included throughout the book as well.
Profile Image for Miz.
1,364 reviews37 followers
September 2, 2015
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 fascinating if you were travelling around Bolivia...

I may be an idealist, but I do believe that human rights are important and this book uncovers the corruption and the outright violation of humans in this prison. It amazes me that things like this exist (actually, it doesn't amaze nor shock me), but it can't be helped along with tourists profiting the "bad guys" by turning up and gawking at cocaine-fuelled prisons and inmates. Mind you, the missionaries didn't seem to be able to do much either. Lose lose. This book definitely makes me believe that most of the help that countries like Bolivia need, needs to come from within the country, from within the system.

Anyway, that is all by-the-by. Entertaining book but too many characters mentioned as “best friends” or “brothers” and their stories were too fleeting. I would like to know what happened to Rusty (as he kinda sounded like a drop) and ultimately where did Thomas end up. I will probably lend this book out to friends and then not expect it back, which I wouldn’t be too sad about.
Profile Image for Tom Collin.
30 reviews2 followers
November 8, 2010
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 because the darkly endearing subject matter of drug smuggling has already been done hundreds of times, and far more elegantly delivered?

In any case, I put down this piece of narrative and walk away feeling somewhat unsatisfied. It's an okay yarn, for sure, and I guess the story provides a nice anecdote on the way that the war on drugs has screwed up parts of Latin America. But really, am I expected to be shocked for 300+ pages, when it is revealed that Bolivian authorities ARE corrupt? And are you trying to tell me that there is a drug problem within the Bolivian prison system? Mind blowing...

Read Mr Nice instead, at least you'll get half a laugh out of that one.
Profile Image for Julie.
662 reviews14 followers
November 9, 2019
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 to buy items and bribe the guards and judges. Fast and interesting read!
14 reviews13 followers
April 17, 2016
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. His story takes places between 1996 and 2000, but it is all still very relevant today. Worth the purchase, worth the read and definitely worth the watch when the movie comes out.
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