Author: Rusty Young
Biography of a drug trafficker locked up in Bolivia’s most notorious prison
They say that prisons don’t actually help to reform prisoners; that, in fact, they make them worse because all the time they are mixing with other convicted felons, which allows them to make new contacts and share knowledge and skills that help them to commit bigger and better crimes once they get out. Well, if prisons are no more than schools for further criminality, then San Pedro prison was the International University of Cocaine.
Marching Powder is a biography that tells the extraordinary story of Thomas McFadden, a likeable Englishman who was locked up in a Bolivian prison in the 90s for attempting to smuggle 5 kg of cocaine into Europe. The book’s author, Rusty Young, is an Australian lawyer who was backpacking through South America when he heard about McFadden from people he met on the road. After spending time with him in his cell, Young was captivated by McFadden’s engaging personality and fantastical tales of prison life. He made a deal with the guards to allow him to come and go as he pleased, and by smuggling transcripts of their conversations through the main gates, he was able to re-tell McFadden’s story.
The result is a fascinating insight into a surreal world, where children and wives lived within the prison walls, inmates had to purchase their own food, clothes and even their cells, and convicted criminals continued to cultivate and deal cocaine. Rich ex-politicians and big-scale drugs traffickers lived in swish accommodation and dined in restaurants, while the poorer inmates were crammed into confined living quarters where they feared for their lives. Corruption was rife and almost anything could be achieved by bribing the prison officials or courthouse judges. In fact, McFadden says of the justice system: ‘If you had money and knew people, you were innocent. If you didn’t, you were guilty. It was that simple.’
The story begins with McFadden’s arrest at the airport in La Paz and includes some eye-opening details about the ingenious methods he used to conceal cocaine and to mask its smell. When McFadden first arrived in San Pedro prison, he was close to death after two weeks of police maltreatment, he had no money and was lucky to survive the wrath of the other prisoners, who mistook him for an American. Young explains that Americans were despised because the US war on drugs was making it more difficult for Bolivians to earn a living. Through good fortune, he was befriended by another inmate who taught him how the mixed-up system worked and helped him learn Spanish. With time, he gained respect, formed invaluable friendships and tried his hand at various trades in order to earn enough cash to get by.
His magnetic persona and sense of humour, and of course a bribe here and there, probably saved McFadden’s life. Quite by chance, he stumbled across one of his most successful money-making schemes. He discovered that it was possible to get tourists into the prison, and as word spread through the backpacking community that they could pay a small fee for an authentic experience living inside a third-world jail, McFadden became known as Thomas the tour guide. He would show groups of backpackers around the sections, introduce them to the inmates as well as a cat that was addicted to crack, and frequently convinced them to stay the night, sampling the best-quality cocaine in Bolivia and partying until dawn.
Sadly, it wasn’t all plain sailing. McFadden spent many painfully lonely days and nights in solitary confinement after being set up and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He had to cope with the deaths of two close friends, live alongside psychotic drug addicts who had absolutely nothing to lose from stabbing someone who so much as got on their nerves, and for some time, became addicted to sleeping pills and cocaine himself. Young’s description of the brutal murder of a group of convicted rapists, witnessed by McFadden during the first year of his sentence, is one of the most graphically disturbing passages I have ever read – and more so because it isn’t fiction.
Marching Powder is a real page turner. It is both shocking and heart warming. Through descriptions of McFadden’s evolving friendships with his inmates, it shows that there is a good side to even the most monstrous of criminals, many of whom had grown up surrounded by poverty and violence. It also demonstrates the enormous positive effect that relative strangers can have on people’s lives, as McFadden is motivated to carry on fighting for his freedom through the darkest, most depressing times by the messages he receives from former visitors all over the world.