I’m not sure how it came up but the first time I heard about this book was earlier in the year when I was taking a tour in Bogota, Colombia. I guess we must have got onto the subject of prisons or drugs or something. The guy leading the tour said we had to read it.
Marching Powder is a true story about a young English guy, Thomas McFadden, who gets busted trying to smuggle five kilos of cocaine out of Bolivia. He gets sent to San Pedro prison in La Paz and the book details his time spent there in jail.
Although he’s obviously guilty, you really warm to Thomas and feel for him throughout the book even when he’s sat in his cell doing line after line of coke. Partly I think this is because of the situation he’s got himself into, the brutality of the police and prison system – no one deserves to be treated like he is. It was a miracle he even survived past his first night in prison, the state he was in when he arrived. Some of the things he says will bring a tear to your eye, like his realisation that unlike some of the people he met while in prison, his old ‘friends’ back home were only there for his drugs and money:
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… 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.
San Pedro isn’t like any prison in England or America, and you’ll find it hard to believe what goes on there. First of all, the prisoners have to pay to be incarcerated there. They get sent to jail but have to pay an entrance fee on arrival. They also have to buy their own cells, which run on a rating system like hotels, from the lowly and dangerous 1-star sections to the 5-star section that holds the rich politicians and businessmen and is isolated from the rest of the prison, with it’s own front gate.
Thomas McFadden became famous for giving guided tours of the prison to western foreigners for loose change, a way of earning some money, as you can’t get by without it in San Pedro – everything has to be paid for. These prison tours became so popular at one time that 40 or 50 tourists would step through the doors on some days, and the experience even earned its place in the Lonely Planet travel guide. For a few more bolivianos, tourists could experience what it was like to spend the night in the prison. As I said, it’s almost unbelievable some of the things that go on in there. Though, anyone who’s travelled in South America will know to expect anything.
I enjoyed Marching Powder immensely and found it really hard to put down. It’s a really eye-opening read, and tells you a lot about life in Bolivia and South America and not only within the prison system. If you’ve traveled in South America, and especially Bolivia, you’ll find this a great read, but I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who likes a good hit of non-fiction.
Marching Powder The Movie
The story is apparently being filmed for a movie to be released at some point (who knows when?!), with Don Cheadle cast as Thomas. He’s one of my favourite actors but a slightly strange choice for this as he’ll be playing someone 20 years younger than himself. Still, I can’t wait to see it on the big screen.