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Book review - Rusty Young - Marching Powder

Updated on March 8, 2011

This book was written by Rusty Young, a young journalist from Sydney, Australia. The book was first published in 2002, but still remains very popular. Especially with the young backpacker crowd it is in high demand. This is of course due to the absolutely unbelievable true story, and because many people who visit South America like to read up on it.

The book is about Thomas McFadden, an international drug trafficker. When he gets caught with several kilos of cocaine in the Bolivian La Paz airport, he is send to the San Pedro prison of La Paz. This is the most peculiar prison though. First of all you have to pay an entrance fee, and then you have to buy your own cell. The prison system is corrupt as can be and everything revolves around money. And as long as you keep the guards happy, meaning keep sending lots of money their way, the prisoners can do whatever they like. The prison is divided up in several living sections, rated with stars according to their luxury. Some prisoners have apartments of several rooms, or several stories to themselves. Others have their wives and children live with them. The wives and children are free to walk in and out of prison as they please, to go to school and do some shopping. Many prisoners have opened little shops or restaurants to earn their keep. And of course drugs are a big part of the prison life. The best and purest cocaine in Bolivia is actually produced in San Pedro.

Rusty Young spends four months in prison with Thomas McFadden in order to interview him and to really experience the prison life for himself. Thomas tells him all about his life and shows him around the prison. Amongst other things Thomas has a little business as a tour guide. Western visitors come to the prison and he shows them around. But prison life isn’t all that great, it is still a prison full of criminals. These people are tough and some will do anything to survive. Thomas’s story is remarkable and very well told.

Thomas really comes alive through Rusty’s writing and you feel you are in there with him. He tells it as it is. His experiences, his highs and his lows. How he deals with being imprisoned and with the weird system. He tells you about friends he made and lost, and about his enemies. His traumas and all the drugs that seems to be all around all the time. The fact that this is a real story gives it even more power. This is definitely a great read. Nowadays there are quite a few books around of Westerners imprisoned in third world prisons, but this was one of the first, and definitely the best one I’ve read so far.

So what are you waiting for? Get it now! It is also a great read if you have never been or will never go to Bolivia!


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    • Mieka profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks LyndaPringle! It is very interesting and shocking, and a very good read. But Marching Powder was written in 2002, so lets hope things have changed by now :)

    • lyndapringle profile image

      Lynda Pringle 

      7 years ago from Austin, Texas

      I really enjoyed reading this review. I am going to definitely buy this one if I can't find it in the library. I do hear that the Bolivian and Peruvian prisons are nasty. However, I guess the saying that money solves all problems is true as it seems to be the case with the prisoners in this prison. Such luxuries would be an abomination in Texas prisons.

    • profile image

      Top Ten 

      8 years ago

      Yeah, one of the best prison reads out there. It sort of trails off a little during the trial, but the rest is a sprawl of ups and downs in San Pedro. Brad Pitt's production company are working on the Marching Powder film - - too, so it will be interesting to see if they can convey the same intensity as the book.


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