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Book Rec: Marching Powder by Rusty Young and Thomas McFadden

Updated: Apr 9

“San Pedro prison, apart from being a social microcosm, is also a microeconomy that operates under basic capitalist principles. In fact, it’s probably more efficient than the whole Bolivian national economy.”

 

Having visited La Paz, I took a walking tour that went by the famous San Pedro prison. Our guide said he recently saw a prisoner stick his head out of the roof rafters and throw a dirty diaper down to a runner who quickly picked it up and ran away. The contents: the world’s purest cocaine made special by the local prisoners, some of the country’s most notorious drug dealers… still working from behind bars. I couldn’t believe it. I witnessed school-aged children and women passing through the gates. “Oh, they are just wives and children of the prisoners. They live behind bars because it’s cheaper than paying two rents,” said my tour guide. Um, what?! I had to know more. Marching Powder is the behind-the-scenes look at San Pedro prison. It will shock you. It will enrage you. It will keep you turning the page until the absolute end. Learn more about Bolivia’s infamous prison in a book now banned in the country- Marching Powder: A True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America's Strangest Jail.  Discussion guide below for your book club & what a meeting that will be!


book jacket of marching powder with black cover and a small RV on the bottom

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 experiences in 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.

 

Discussion Guide


  1. What did you think of Thomas’ story? Is he a reliable narrator? Even if 10% of his story is true, is it still shocking?

  2. Have you been to Bolivia before? If not, what about other developing countries with notoriously corrupt governments? How do these countries differ from your own? In what ways does the political environment impact the drug culture?

  3. Having personally seen women & children enter the prison (and can attest to its authenticity), what do you think of the families living inside with the prisoner? The book mentions a brief time when outside pressures tried to remove the children from the prison, but the mothers spoke up against separating the families. Do you agree?

  4. Thomas doesn’t appear to be repentant of his criminal activities until the very end with a quick quid pro quo prayer. Do you think San Pedro prison changed him?

  5. Ultimately the San Pedro prison tours ended after some serious crimes against the tourists occurred – rape, assault and theft. Do you think prison tours help or hurt the system? The tourists? The men behind bars?

 

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So good!

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