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Prison in Bolivia

The setting for Rusty Young's Marching Powder

San Pedro prison in La Paz, Bolivia is a small place; a high walled, nearly windowless building that occupies a city block. There's a nice courtyard across from the main entrance. I used to sit in it for several hours a day during the three weeks I spent in La Paz, talking with locals and playing guitar.

I didn't realize it was a prison at first. Women and children came and went all day through the guarded entrance, the women with boxes of foods or goods for sale and the children with little school backpacks.

Neither did I realize that this is the setting of Thomas McFadden's true story Marching Powder, written by Rusty Young, a book that was recommended to me while I was there but that I read much later.

McFadden was a cocaine smuggler who finally got busted and sent to jail there in La Paz. Marching Powder is both an incredible survival story and an expose of a bizarre, deeply corrupt prison system. Prisoners have jobs on the inside, often processing cocaine, and they live with their families and buy, sell and rent their cells. The poorest share filthy communal hellholes on the bottom level and smoke base, while the more prosperous live in relative luxury and can leave whenever they want.

Eventually McFadden finds his occupation – giving tours of the prison to backpackers, the way author Rusty Young met him. He sells them coke and they sometimes spend the night in his cell.

I heard that a movie based on Marching Powder is in the works, so I recommend reading this incredible story before the movie comes out.