Marching Powder: A Gringo Mule in Bolivian Prison

Marching Powder by Rusty Young
(buying through that link supports Expat Chronicles)

Kick ass, compelling book. I ran through it in a day. The book tells the story of Thomas McFadden, a British drug mule who was caught with 5 kilos of cocaine at the airport in La Paz, and subsequently served almost five years in Bolivia’s San Pedro prison. Rusty Young, the author, was backpacking South America when he arrived to La Paz. One of the highest recommended tourist activities was a prison tour of San Pedro. It was even mentioned in his Lonely Planet guide. The tour guide was Thomas McFadden.

From his tour, here’s Young’s first impression of McFadden:

First, he was black. Uri had told me Thomas was from England, so I had expected him to be white. Second, he was charming and courteous in a way that I would not have expected of a prisoner. When four more tourists arrived, he shook hands with each of them in turn, looking them squarely in the eyes and repeating their names. Over the next hour and a half, he didn’t get a single name wrong.

Thomas had a strange accent for an Englishman. He called everyone ‘man’ and somethings mixed up his words and tenses. But that didn’t matter. Thomas had a magical way of drawing you right in. He had an energy I have encountered in very few people in teh world. There were nine of us in the tour group, but I never doubted for a moment that Thomas was speaking only to me. The tour itself was fascinating, but it did not end there. When the other visitors left, Thomas invited me back to his ‘cell’, which was more like a student room in a fraternity house. He had cable television, a refrigerator and said he had once owned a computer.

Without another word, Thomas produced a small wrap of cocaine and started chopping its contents into lines on a CD case. I looked at the door, which he had locked. Thomas sensed what I was thinking.

‘My prison cell is the safest place in the world to take cocaine,’ he assured me, laughing to himself. ‘I won’t get busted, man. I can have the police fired if they give me any trouble.’

The two immediately hit it off. Young astutely spotted the compelling story in McFadden, and went to live in San Pedro to record interviews and take notes in order to write the book.

McFadden was a career mule and drug trafficker. He offers interesting insights to the job:

[W]henever I walk into an airport anywhere in the world carrying merchandise, I treat everything as a game. I try to see the funny side of things. If you think too much about the risk you’re taking, it makes you nervous and you make bad decisions. Of course, you’re always going to be a bit nervous, but thinking of the whole thing as a game stops those nerves from showing on your face …

I’ve snuck tiny bits of dope through to the US, and was almost caught in The MIA Incident. I believe there was divine intervention in my not getting caught. But I also believe that because almost eight hours of nervous anticipation had passed before being searched, I had already accepted the fact that I was going to jail. I was ready for it. So I didn’t come off nervous at all at crunch time. I’d already accepted my fate.

Back to McFadden’s industry insights:

All the while I was looking around in order to make a more thorough assessment of the airport’s security system. Because it was so small, I could have got all the necessary information in a single sweep, but I took my time and made all my observations very openly. That’s the first mistake amateur traffickers make: they think the less they look around, the less attention they will attract. But that’s exactly the opposite of what you should do. If you’ve got nothing to hide, then why wouldn’t you look around? A typical passenger walks into a terminal and stops, looks at the departures board, goes the wrong way and then asks directions of people, all the while searching for the right counter and looking around them. They might even look up at the ceiling and notice the security cameras …

‘Specialists’ is the name I give to the security personnel in airports whose job it is to specifically target drug traffickers. You never really know for sure who might be a specialist or who the specialists might have helping them. It could be anyone from a DEA agent posing as a passenger, to an airline employee at the check-in counter or an innocent-looking cleaner. I have even heard of an airline flight attendant who was paid by a specialist to take not of people who didn’t eat during a flight, because that can indicate they have swallowed merchandise …

The regular police and army officials never worry me in the slightest, no matter how many there are. In fact, the more the better. When there are a lot of them, they relax, thinking that someone else will cover for them. But you do have to look out for the specialists; they never rely on the support of a lazy and incompetent team. They work alone and take all the credit themselves. Even when they get you, they don’t like to reveal themselves; they stay undercover and keep working until they catch the next one, and the next one after that. A lot of traffickers who get caught never even find out that it was a specialist who got them. They think it was a sniffer dog, or a lucky customs search or a tip-off, when actually it was a specialist who pegged them in the terminal.

The normal police and customs people are there just to earn a living, but the specialists are properly trained and actually enjoy their jobs … In fact, many of them are as passionate about and dedicated to their jobs as I am. We’re in exactly the same business, just on different sides … I often know who the specialists are because they are too casual; they are trying too hard to blend in. But just knowing who the specialists are doesn’t mean you have won; they can still get you. In fact, if they catch you catching them, then you’ve lost, because only a trafficker would be looking out for a specialist …

I had been doing this drug business since I was a boy. When I was younger, I was like an action man – I could go anywhere in the world with merchandise and never get caught. Sometimes I worked out of India with hashish or heroin, sometimes from Pakistan, but the last few times had been out of South America with cocaine. I would fly over, buy a few kilos through my Bolivian contacts, and then fly back and sell to my contacts in Europe. I never got caught, because I was smart …

The three most important factors in transporting merchandise are the amount you take, disguising the smell, and where you hide it.

You should never strap it to your body; that went out in the 1980s. It’s very obvious, even to the untrained eye, when people are loaded up with drugs under their clothes. As soon as an official suspects something, or even if the police do a standard security pat down for weapons, they’ll catch you straight away. If that happens, there’s no way that you can deny the drugs are yours. What judge is going to believe that you don’t know how ten bags of cocaine got taped around your body?

Swallowing the stuff, known as body packing, is still OK. All sorts of stories go around about the horrible death you die in the airport if one of the capsules bursts in your stomach or gets caught in your intestines, but if the job is done properly, then there’s almost no chance of that happening. If you don’t know how to do it yourself, there are people in the industry who specialise in compressing the cocaine into tight balls and wrapping them so that there’s no way they will accidentally break open .The bigger operators even have special industrial machines that do the job perfectly – a hydraulic press that compacts the merchandise into a cylindrical mould and another machine to seal the product with several layers of the latest-technology plastics that aren’t affected by stomach acid.

The capsules are known in Colombian Spanish as ‘dedos’ – fingers. Colombian traffickers are always looking for swallower mules, and gringos are preferred. Compensation ranges from $5000 – $8000, plus all the expenses of your trip. The swallowing method is brilliantly depicted in 2004 Colombian film, Maria Full of Grace. Back to Marching Powder:

The optimal-size package for swallowing is ten grams. It’s not a pleasant task, but you get used to it after a while. It can take several hours to get the whole lot done – the first few go down OK, but once your stomach starts to get full, it becomes more and more difficult. If you force yourself, then you want to vomit. The packets can be swallowed with water to make it easier, but that also fills your stomach up faster. The best thing to do is to prepare your body by eating lots of fibre in the days before. After swallowing the packets, you mustn’t eat anything that might raise the acid levels in your digestive system or push the packets through too quickly.

Obviously, as with body strapping, if the police find merchandise inside your body there is no way to deny it’s yours. But there is a lot less chance of the authorities finding it in the first place. The first check they do at an airport, if they suspect that you are body packing, is to press your stomach with their hands. They can usually feel any hard objects with their fingers, so it’s best to swallow the packets two days before flying so that by the time you reach the terminal they are in your intestines, where they are more difficult to detect. The packets will still show up on an X-ray machine, or the police can detain you until your body expels them, but they have to be pretty certain for it to get to that point. Aside from the physical discomfort, the main disadvantage of swallowing is that you can only transport a small amount; six or seven hundred grams each run, or a kilogram at the very most.

At the same time, you shouldn’t get too greedy in this business; the more stuff you carry, the more space it takes up and the harder it is to hide. I learned that lesson the hard way when I lost forty-five kilos of cocaine in Brazil. But for this run I had exactly five kilos, which was the perfect amount; it was enough to make good money, but I had compressed it so that it was very small and almost impossible to find.

I had done this by dividing the five kilos into four equally sized lots and wrapping them in a layer of cling plastic – the type people use for keeping sandwiches fresh. I then placed each of these bundles in a friend’s machine press, which had a handle that you turned in order to screw the top down against the base. I tightened it with all my strength, and then re-tightened it at five-minute intervals. The press completely flattened everything in between, so that the cocaine was as thin as cardboard. After half an hour, I unscrewed the press and folded these sheets over a few times and trimmed them with a knife so that the dimensions were exactly right for the compartments they would go into. Then I pressed them for antoher half an hour. There were about seventy grams left over at the end. I decided to make them into balls for swallowing. It wasn’t much of an insurance policy – that amount would hardly cover the expenses of my trip, let alone the cost of the five kilos – but if I got caught and was sent to prison, I figured I could use it to bribe my way out …

This should provoke a laugh from anybody in cocaine-producing countries. 70 grams is a good amount to party on, and it’s not free, but it won’t fetch enough to get you out of jail. Maybe for a misdemeanor or petty offense, but not 5 kilos at the airport.

The next thing to consider is the smell …

After the first layer of plastic cling wrapping I added a thick coating of chilli powder. Chilli has a powerful smell that throws the dogs off the scent. Then I added another layer of cling film and then another thin layer of chilli powder. The next layer was the completely airtight one made by placing each package between two plastic sheets, which were then melted together along the edges. I did this using my friend’s special machine that they use in Bolivian restaurants for making meatfilled pastries called salteñas. All those layers should have been enough, but for good measure, I wrapped one more layer around, with ground coffee underneath. I mixed the coffee granules with a little water first. When it dries, it sticks evenly around the outside of the plastic like strong glue, forming another airtight layer. Coffee also has a very strong smell that confuses the dogs if they happen to get close enough.

The final question was where to hide the packages. I now had four compressed, airtight loads of slightly less than one-and-a-quarter kilograms. I hid them very cleverly in my two custom-designed suitcases that you can buy in any flea market in South America; they also went out in the ’80s. I had my cases manufactured in England to my own specifications. They had cost me a lot of money, but they were worth it.

The secret compartments were in the actual spines of the suitcases, next to the hinges. The spines of the suitcases were so thin that no one would ever think of looking there. The packages fitted exactly, with not an inch to spare. If the police searched me, they would be too busy tapping other parts of the suitcase listening for the hollow wounds that indicate a false bottom to even think that the merchandise might be hidden in the spine. My suitcases could be used only once. After the merchandise had been wedged into place and the spine glued down, no one could get to it without damaging the case. The cops would need to be one hundred per cent certain that they would find something, if they were going to start destroying my luggage.

As always, I took special care to leave no traces whatsoever when handling the merchandise and the suitcases. The whole operation was performed wearing rubber gloves, and I also wore a shower cap to stop any stray hairs from falling into the cases. Afterwards, I threw away the clothes I was wearing. Even a single fibre from your sweater can be matched to you.


Finally, this nugget about an Italian buddy in San Pedro would have been worth gold to several a gringo locked up:

There’s a rule that you learn in South America if you stay there long enough: if someone offers you a stack of money to smuggle drugs on to a flight, don’t do it if the amount is anything less than two kilos. You’ll be the sacrifice to get five other passengers through with the main shipment. If you’re going to take the risk, then you might as well organise the whole thing yourself. That way, no one can set you up and you get to take all the profits yourself …

Roberto was one of those stupid tourists. The police caught him at the airport with a kilo of cocaine hidden in shampoo bottles. It must have been a tip-off; when cocaine is dissolved in liquid it’s a lot harder to detect, so the cops have to be very certain in order to detain you just for carrying two extra bottles of hair conditioner.

Dopeman told me about this – traffickers setting up one mule to get others through. And if there’s anybody I wouldn’t trust with a dollar, much less a few years of my life, it’d be Colombians.

Long story short, McFadden was set up for a fall. Not in the same way, but government associates he’d been bribing in the past set him up to go down under new pressure from the American war on drugs.

The rest of the book describes McFadden’s time in Bolivian prison, the characters he meets, his wild experiences, his tour business, and ultimately, his release. There’s a Hollywood-esque twist at the end that threatens to keep him locked up, which will keep you reading.

The book demonstrates prison conditions in Latin America. I’ve heard a lot from The Mick, whose descriptions of 1980s La Modelo are similar to San Pedro. Also, the film Carandiru offers a glance at life in a Sao Paolo prison. Because the prisons are so overcrowded, it’s nothing like gringo prisons. The main thing to remember is, the guards don’t run the place. They just watch the gates to make sure no one escapes. The prisons are run by the inmates.

Another fact of prison in Latin America, a definite bright side, is that you’ll never be in want of drugs or sex. Women are regularly brought in. And his time in La Modelo was the only period when The Mick never ran out of marijuana. Everything can be had at a price. See the NY Times video on Margarita Island, Venezuela’s Paradise Prison, or read Venezuela’s Top Party Prison.

Because of overcrowding, the supply of cells far outnumbers demand. So cells aren’t free. The Mick was surprised he had to buy his cell. He was only able to buy one in a nice patio (section) because of his cohorts, Los Angelitos. Here’s McFadden’s account of his arrival:

‘Ahora tiene que comprar su propia celda,’ the major repeated impatiently. When his men heard this the second time, they struggled to contain their laughter.

‘Now you must buy your own cell,’ the corporal translated again. Once more, I suspected that this was simply another way of asking for a bribe because I was a foreigner … [T]he policeman came back in carrying a large blue book …

It took me some time to understand what the book was about. The pages were divided into columns that contained dates adn names and descriptions. When he sensed that I was having difficulty, the corporal explained that this was a list of all the cells currently for sale that I could choose from.

Still not quite believing that any of this was real, I asked the major how much a cell cost, using one of my few Spanish expressions: ‘¿Cuánto cuesta?’

‘Cinco mil,’ he responded. I thought I knew the numbers, but I must have misheard. Five thousand was too much. I asked the translator to repeat teh amount in English. He confirmed that it was five thousand.

‘Dollars or bolivianos?’

‘Dollars, my amigo,’ he said. Cell prices in San Pedro are always in American dollars.’

McFadden was broke. He couldn’t buy a cell and had to sleep out in the open courtyard. When he woke up, he was surprised at what he saw. Get a better image from the Venezuela’s Paradise Prison video, or here is McFadden’s account:

The first thing I saw was a big red sign painted on the wall advertising Coca-Cola. Then I saw a number of women and children. I had expected to find myself in a horrible Bolivian prison, where I was probably going to die. Had it all been a bad dream? I didn’t actually know where I was or how I’d gotten there, but it certainly didn’t look like a jail. I looked around again and wondered if it was some kind of peasant village or city slum. Surrounding me was a deteriorating building complex of small apartments of all shapes and sizes, with their doors painted in various colours. It was three storeys high and made mostly of wood. The sun was shining and what seemed like hundreds of families were beginning to stir.

Wooden balconies creaked as the women emerged from their houses and began their daily chores. Some carried fresh market produce – fruits, vegetables and chunks of meat – in sacks slung over their shoulders. Others were setting up small stalls that sold all types of goods, from soft drinks, cigarettes and chocolate bars, to secondhand cutlery and cassette tapes. A group of women, dressed in poor but colorful rags, were scrubbing and rinsing clothes by a washbasin and then placing them out to dry on the concrete. One young woman, who could not have been more than sixteen, was seated on a bench, breastfeeding her baby.

There were also children of all ages everywhere. The older ones – dressed in their school uniforms, some wearing backpacks – were enjoying the final moments before they had to leave for class. Two small girls jumped gleefully from square to square on a hopscotch grid they had drawn on a cement playing field. Around them, a group of boys was playing a noisy game of soccer …

Later, he was taken in by the Bolivian equivalent of a deported Colombian, Ricardo from New York. Ricardo takes him into his own cell in a nicer section until he gets accustomed. Ricardo also tells him about Ley 1008, a law enacted under pressure from the US to eradicate coca. Americans were hated in Bolivia because of their anti-drug initiatives. Ricardo made it a point to always call McFadden ‘Inglaterra’ in public so word would get out he was British, as everyone assumed he was American because he was black.

When McFadden finally gets a few thousand dollars together, he goes about buying a cell. There’s a fascinating description of the real estate market and how it works inside San Pedro, but too much to copy here.

McFadden was targeted by a gang when he arrived. They jumped him several times, leaving him beaten and bloody. One time they almost stabbed him, so McFadden realized he’d have to fight back. Here’s how he did it:

I took note of who was the leader. It was the same guy with the mean eyes from the first time I had been attacked in the bathroom. One day I went looking for him in the inside sections. When I saw him coming, I hid around the corner and then attacked him without warning, just like they had done to me. I had to do it quickly so that no one else had time to come to his aid, and I had to do it properly so that he wouldn’t come back for more. The first punch broke his nose and knocked him to the ground. He wasn’t getting up, but I didn’t stop there. I had to put him out of action completely, so I kicked him again and again until one of his gang arrived and tried to pull me off. I went for that one, too, knocking his head against the wall and kneeing him in the groin before giving him the same kicking as the first one.

‘Who else? Come on!’ I punched the wall.

Two more of the gang had arrived by that stage, but when they saw their friends on the ground and my fierce expression, neither of them wanted to risk it.

I had done the job properly, but for the next few weeks I had to be constantly on the lookout in case they were out for payback. I carried a thick metal bar with me everywhere I went, banging it against the walls every now and then, and I never smiled. People had heard what I’d done and I wanted them to know I was still on edge, and could snap at any moment. To be honest, it was all an act. I was even more afraid than before, although I never showed it. Luckily it worked and they left me alone. I had finally earned some respect in prison.

That’s one of the many powerful images that stuck after reading Marching Powder. Another was when he befriends the Governor, the top boss of the prison, who one night sends a couple chicks with whiskey to McFadden’s cell. Then the Governor shows up and sends McFadden out to get coke. But the most enduring scene was what happened to a gang of rapists when they arrived. They’re lynched by a mob who throws them in a tiny swimming pool. If they try to reach the sides, they get their hands and heads kicked. They eventually drown. One managed to get out of the pool and was stabbed and stomped until McFadden could see his brains.

One part that’s almost unbelievable is McFadden’s prudeness despite being a career drug trafficker. I didn’t believe it as I was reading, but he claimed to have never done cocaine before a night partying in jail. But later he confesses to developing quite a habit, so he has no reason to lie. I was shocked again to see him try to intervene against the lynching of the rapists. Do I agree with the death penalty for rapists? It doesn’t matter what I think if I’m in Bolivian prison and a mob is beating a few guys to death. I wouldn’t do a damn thing. But McFadden was almost killed for trying to save one of them. Then he went into a period of depression caused by what he’d seen. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Who gives a fuck?

McFadden comes upon the idea of tours much like I did with the brothel tours. I had taken a few gringos to Santa Fe as friends, when I realized I could charge gringos I don’t know. McFadden made an Israeli girlfriend on a furlough night-on-the-town, and she brought a bunch of backpackers to see the prison.

The San Pedro tours began slowly, but it wasn’t long before they really started to take off. My second and third years in San Pedro were the busiest and happiest of my whole life. Tourists began arriving at the gates in larger and larger groups, sometimes up to ten or fifteen at a time. When they came, the taxistas would send for me. I would explain to the tourists through the bars that they had to leave their passports with the lieutenant and then he would let them into the main courtyard. Once they were inside, I would introduce myself properly before taking them straight to my room where I would offer to make them a cup of tea or coffee. When everyone felt comfortable, I would give them some background information on the prison. Then I would show them around the various sections, except for the five-and-a-half-star section of Posta, which you needed permission to enter.

Everything was quite peaceful in San Pedro during the day and there really wasn’t all that much to see. What the tourists enjoyed most of all was the thrill of actually being inside a prison, as well as hearing about how the San Pedro system worked. As I took my visitors around each part of the prison, I told them about my own experiences. I showed them the prison church, the abandoned building where I had slept the first night, as well as la piscina – ‘the pool’ – and explained a little about the property system, the prison economy and the prison hierarchy. They were always fascinated by the luxurious cells they saw and by the fact that there were young children about as well as cats and dogs.

The tour itself ran for less than an hour. What happened afterwards depended on what the tourists wanted. Sometimes we ate a meal at one of the restaurants, which the tourists often claimed served better food than the ones outside. Then, if there wasn’t another group waiting for me, we would go back to my room for a chat. When it came time to leave I would accompany them to the gate to make sure that they got their passports back and made it safely out of the prison.

Then there was competition. Gangs started tours with English-speaking Bolivians, but word got out among the backpackers to ask for Thomas. Specifically one deported Bolivian, Fanstama (Ghost), wanted in on the tours. He was a confessed, unrepentant killer, and McFadden was afraid of him. So he dropped the tours. In addition to the tours, McFadden also ran a shop and restaurant. And he sold cocaine to Europe. San Pedro boasts the best cocaine in the world. They have labs inside, and the industry is thoroughly described in the book.

In addition to prison life, Marching Powder touches on a lot of the nuances of Latin culture. Like here:

Despite their poverty, the Bolivians are basically a very happy people, and they like it when you make them laugh. I’d say to the inmates, ‘When are you going to introduce me to your sister? You promised.’ Once they laughed, it was hard for anyone to get angry with me.

The other thing was to make each person feel important. Many of the inmates were curious about foreigners, and some secretly looked up to them, so they loved it when I introduced them as someone special, especially to the girls.

‘This is Chapako,’ I’d say. ‘He’s the champion striker in the Prefectura football team, aren’t you?’ Chapako would laugh, and then I would take it a step further by making the others around him laugh: ‘He used to play for the Bolivian national team, but then he got too fat. That’s why they put him in prison.’ Once you made people laugh, you could get away with anything.

Making people laugh is a crucial skill in Latin America. And if you’re good at it, it’s a golden key to open any door. Every time I’ve paid off cops, you have to make them laugh first. You have to play with people and be social.

It’s a great book. I haven’t done the characters or plot justice with the few highlighted passages, so read it yourself. Buy Marching Powder by Rusty Young on Amazon (buying through that link supports Expat Chronicles).

I’ve read that Brad Pitt’s production company has purchased film rights to the book, and Don Cheadle has been casted as Thomas McFadden.

See for pictures of San Pedro from the author, Rusty Young.



  1. I literally just bought this book a few hours ago. I’d heard of the prison before arriving in La Paz last month, but I didn’t know why it was popular with tourists. A few friends suggested I try and visit.

    I was in La Paz less than 24 hours, but I figured I’d give it a go. I took a taxi to the plaza across the street. There were family lined up outside a door, but I didn’t want to go stand in line, so I anxiously walked around the whole prison looking for another door (none). The walls were like mud, but they were several stories high, and thick I imagined.

    As I was coming back toward the entrance, I saw a guard, and asked him about a tour in Spanish. He said “no” but when I asked again, he asked another guard, who said something back and I was told it wasn’t possible after 4pm. I didn’t even know what was going to happen if I went inside.

    Then I saw the street in front of the jail get closed to traffic, and a garbage truck backed up to the front door where the family were lined up. Guess it was trash time. Next time I’m in La Paz, I’ll get there earlier!


  2. Zac, that’s one of the enduring images from the book. ‘Crack Cat’ is, in fact, a cat addicted to smoking crack.

    Another crack addict cuts himself to come down.


  3. I plan to purchase this book, Colin has an eye for stories that would interest his subscribers.

    McFadden’s story is compelling. He “does what he needs to do” to survive, yet comes other side with his soul intact, at leased no more messed up than when he went in.

    Most importantly he does to get involved in a business far more slimy than drugs. I am talking about realestate. From Orange Counry to San Pedro prison only the strong survive in this filthy business.

    While posing with backpackers, McFadden assumes the classic “California Prison Pose”,


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