The Englishman Who Thrived in Bolivia's Cocaine Prison

Thomas McFadden's messy life story is going to be a Hollywood movie.

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Jun 16 2014, 3:40pm

The San Martín section of Bolivia's San Pedro prison. Photo by Niels Van Iperen

Being imprisoned for drug smuggling usually means taking a little break from being a criminal. But for Liverpudlian Thomas McFadden—who was apprehended at La Paz airport in 1996 with five kilos of cocaine in his suitcase—the four and a half years he spent at Bolivia’s infamous San Pedro prison consisted of nearly as much nefarious activity as he’d been involved in as a free man, including showing tourists around the cells and selling them homemade cocaine as a parting memento.

Australian writer Rusty Young turned McFadden’s story into a book, Marching Powder, which is now set to be made into a film. In fact, it was announced last week that 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor would be taking the lead role, meaning development is clearly underway. But I’m impatient, so instead of waiting for the movie to come out, I thought I’d ask McFadden to tell me about his life himself.

Over the phone from his home in Tanzania, where he was born and now owns a chicken farm, he recalled why he abandoned Liverpool, England, for the glitzy world of swallowing balloons full of cocaine for a living. “My guardian parents were giving me a hard time,” he said, “so I left home at 15 and went to India with my Indian friend.” Simple as that.

Of course, being a 15-year-old runaway in a foreign country doesn’t lead to many job prospects, and McFadden quickly ran out of money. Fortunately, he soon met Mathias, a Sri Lankan man who'd lost his legs fighting for the Tamil Tigers and who introduced the teen to a group of wealthy Indians who would turn him on to the drug-trafficking business.

“I was very young at the time—I was just doing it for fun,” McFadden said. “I would go shopping, buy gold… but I wasn’t doing it for the money.”

Thomas McFadden (left) and Rusty Young in Bolivia's San Pedro prison. Photo by Simone Camilleri

Unlike, say, a plumbing apprenticeship, exporting large quantities of illegal substances isn’t really a profession that allows you to ease into it; McFadden started his new career flying shipments of heroin to Morocco, then smuggling them into Europe. But that, apparently, wasn’t something that fazed him too much; for McFadden, the whole thing was basically just a game, albeit one with some very severe consequences.

Depending on the situation, the young smuggler would use a variety of techniques to get his packages through customs. Sometimes he’d swallow bags; other times he’d press and seal the drugs into briefcases with false sides. “Every method has its time,” he said.

I asked him if he thought he was good at smuggling. “Yes, I was good,” he laughed. “Trafficking is not like shopping—it’s not easy. Somebody is waiting for you over there, and in your hand you’re carrying three kilos of drugs. You have to have guts and be smart.”

While guts and intelligence clearly count for something, there were still plenty of unforeseen bumps that almost led to McFadden's getting caught. “One time I was in a queue in India, waiting to board a flight, and a policeman tapped me on my shoulder and told me to follow him,” he recalled. “I didn’t and tried to ignore him. Luckily, the plane was about to take off, and they let me go because they didn’t have enough time to catch me.”

Policemen tapping you on your shoulder as you attempt to board a plane is a pretty good indication that something’s up, so McFadden—aware that he was now being monitored by the Indian authorities—had no option but to relocate his business.

A kitchen in the Palmar section of Bolivia's San Pedro prison. Photo by Niels Van Iperen

Choosing South America as his new stomping ground, he first worked out of Brazil before moving on to Bolivia, transporting cocaine rather than heroin. By this point, his priorities had changed—he was trafficking for a living, “not just for fun,” and it wasn’t long before his new appetite for cash landed him in the situation he’d moved halfway around the world to avoid.

In La Paz, Bolivia, McFadden had been bribing a police colonel in a bid to ward off any hassle from the cops. That worked out for a while, but ultimately the colonel betrayed him, sending a team of police to the airport to intercept him and the five kilos of cocaine he was carrying before he boarded a flight. He was arrested, questioned, and taken into custody, where all of his possessions were stolen by guards, leaving him with nothing but the 70 grams of coke floating around in his stomach.

McFadden was sentenced to six years and eight months in La Paz’s San Pedro prison. The infamous detention center is a microcosm of regular society, where money is king and can get you anything from a television to a night with a prostitute. Inmates run their own restaurants and shops, and many of their families live in the prison with them because they’re too poor to survive alone outside.

An inmate smoking base in San Pedro prison. Photo by Simone Camilleri

Poverty is also rife in San Pedro, with inmates having to pay for the majority of their basic amenities, such as food and rent on their jail cell. Those with no money effectively become homeless on the streets of the prison—a hardship McFadden encountered when he arrived. “On the first day I didn’t have any cash on me,” he said. “So I had to sleep on the floor, which was covered in shit.”

However, with the help of some of the prison’s more generous inmates, a volunteer from the Anglican church, and the charity Prisoners Abroad, McFadden eventually got himself set up for a life in San Pedro. He was loaned the money he needed to rent his own cell and began adjusting to what would be his reality for the next few years.

The prison, as McFadden soon discovered, was also a highly efficient cocaine factory. A vast majority of the inmates were in for drug charges, and if you couple that with the rampant corruption among the guards at the time (the jail has since been cleaned up, thanks in part to the publicity caused by Marching Powder), it’s no huge surprise that the place was producing enough of the stuff to keep an entire Wall Street firm in heart palpitations and coke bloats. Inmates produced the drug within the prison walls, selling it on the outside and using it themselves, while the poorer prisoners smoked base, the residue left over from the manufacturing process.

McFadden with some tourists and a couple of San Pedro inmates

McFadden managed to forge his own career inside by giving guided tours of San Pedro before offering his customers some of the prison’s homemade cocaine. Thanks to word of mouth and some promotion in a Lonely Planet guide—whose writer presumably wasn’t aware of the gift shop at the end of the tour—McFadden was soon dealing with about 70 visitors per day. “People would be planning to go to other places in South America,” he said, “but they would end up spending their whole time in La Paz.”

Every year on San Juan—a Bolivian festival on June 23—the tours would turn into overnight parties attended by a weird mix of international drug smugglers and Western students. “It was a unique time, the day of San Juan,” McFadden laughed, adding that I had missed “something incredible.”

One of McFadden's visitors was Australian Rusty Young, who was backpacking around the country at the time. The two became close friends, and Rusty was so intrigued by the stories he heard that he ended up staying in the prison for three months to begin writing the novel that would become Marching Powder.

Rusty and McFadden today. Photo courtesy of Rusty Young

McFadden was released from San Pedro in 2000 after serving two thirds of his sentence, and he went to Colombia with Rusty to finish off the book before returning to the UK. But arriving back home, he was confronted by a country that he no longer recognized. “Things had changed a lot,” he told me. “Before I went inside there were no internet cafes or coffee shops, and everything was suddenly so expensive.”

After three fruitless years of job hunting, McFadden decided to return to the country where he was born. Today, he tends to 2,800 chickens in Dar es Salaam, following that traditional career progression from international drug trafficker to renowned prison tour guide to livestock farmer. He has two children—a six-year-old son named Rusty, after his friend, and a one-year-old daughter. And after years of cocaine addiction, which wasn't helped by the fact he lived in a drug factory for almost half a decade, he's now clean. “It was difficult, but thank God I had good friends like Rusty to help me," he said.

With the life he’s had, it’s tempting to assume that McFadden could easily up sticks at any moment, trading in Tanzania for a new life in Belize or a job selling yachts along the Dalmatian coast. But listening to him talk from his home in the bush, it’s clear he’s found a place where he belongs.

Follow Jack Gilbert on Twitter.

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