Brit drug trafficker held wild cocaine prison tours in deadly Bolivian jail

A British drug trafficker held 'cocaine prison tours' for backpackers in a dangerous South American jail surrounded by murderers and rapists.

While the story might seem barely believable, Thomas McFadden lived it for almost five years in San Pedro prison, in the Bolivian city of La Paz.

The British citizen was thrown in jail after being betrayed by a contact in the drug world, and soon set upon the idea that there was a real thirst for tourists to experience what is was like to experience the inside of a real South American clink.

And if the backpackers bribed the guards enough, they could even stay the night – although there was no going back if people were spooked halfway through the night and decided staying overnight was too dangerous for them.

After Thomas was arrested for trying to smuggle 5kg of cocaine at La Paz's El Alto Airport in 1996, his problems were only just beginning. Because it was difficult to imagine how the San Pedro ecosystem worked.

First, he had to pay his own taxi fare from the police station to the prison. Then, Thomas found out he would have to pay an entrance fee for the privilege of entering the prison before buying his own cell.

Nothing came for free in the Bolivian penal system.

Thomas's incredible story was turned into a bestseller with the help of Australian author Rusty Young, titled Marching Powder. Rusty was originally one of the backpackers who came to visit Thomas for one of the tours.

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Rusty ended up bribing the guards to stay in San Pedro for months to work on the book together. Rusty would later to pose as an Thomas's 'international human rights lawyer' to get him off fresh charges and secure his release.

Now there is a television series in development which hopes to bring Thomas's story to a wider and more modern audience.

Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor has been signed to the project to pay the lead role.

Speaking more than 20 years after his release, Thomas – who is now a reformed character and living a simple life running a chicken farm in his native Tanzania with his family – said he could not believe how popular the tours were at first.

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He told the Daily Star: "I could not believe how popular the cocaine prison tours were sometimes.

"I used to receive up to 70 visitors a day and generated a lot of cash for the prisoners and the guards.

"It was hard to imagine that you had to pay to be a prisoner. When I arrived I was told I had to pay an entrance fee, I thought I was losing my head.

"Now I own a chicken farm. Before I went to jail I was addicted to cash. Now I earn very little but I'm happier and I enjoy life more."

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Thomas returned to San Pedro in 2017 for the filming of the documentary Wildlands.

He went to Bolivia with Rusty, who went to the South American country to uncover the brutal realities of the drug trade.

Thomas, who said he turned down countless illicit offers after his release from prison, had promised in the book that he would never return to San Pedro.

He said: "Sometimes when I look back on my time in San Pedro, I don't know how I made it out.

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"It was a really dangerous place. The inmates run the prison and it was harder to find a plate of food than a gram of cocaine.

"But I spent a significant part of my life in San Pedro and it will always be part of my life.

"I met my brother Rusty there, it's the place where I found love, I found a huge family of backpackers with whom I'm still in touch. When I got the chance to go back I couldn't ignore it, but it was a strange feeling."

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All the claims made in Marching Powder were denied by the Bolivian government. They rejected claims tourists paid to come into the jail despite photographic evidence to the contrary.

They also denied Thomas's allegation that drugs were produced on the inside and claims women and children were also living in the prison with the male inmates.

Thomas saw rapists murdered in front of his eyes and he himself was subjected to vicious beatings when he first arrived because inmates mistook him for an American, who were hated by the Bolivians.

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He said: "A lot of stabbings happened. Some of my friends got stabbed."

There were a list of potential bribes as long as your arm. One of these was a night out in La Paz. Prisoners had to $100 and an extra charge for a guard to chaperone him.

It was on one of these nights that Thomas even met a girlfriend, an Israeli backpacker called Yasheeda, who ended up staying with him in the prison on and off for months.

She would later prove the inspiration for the prison tours which even earned Thomas a mention in the Lonely Planet guidebook, although the entry omitted the readily available cocaine many of the backpackers enjoyed on their visits.

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Once word spread that it was cheaper to spend a night in San Pedro than in the cheapest hostel in La Paz, Thomas found a slew of backpackers were queuing up outside the jail to meet him.

Rusty told the Daily Star: "It's easy to talk about the ethics of whether the tours were right – but it was the opportunity to spend a night in a prison as an adventurous young traveller. Would you turn that down?

"The Bolivian government always officially denied tourists were going into the prison, but how can they deny it when there is picture evidence?

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"It was a simpler time, a time before the internet, and I'm not sure if such a thing would come to pass now."

Thomas said he had never taken cocaine before going to jail, but developed a strong addiction while he was banged up abroad.

But he has been on the straight and narrow since his release, and Rusty said he is "proud" of Thomas, who has since become his best friend.

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Rusty said: "I'm proud of having met him and that he's gone back on that path. He could be milking the success of the book but he's living a humble life.

"He was living the high life in prison, and it took some readjusting after he was released."

Thomas added: "I had to keep a promise to myself not to go back to drug trafficking. That's how I ended up in San Pedro."

The tours continued to be run after Thomas's release but they are believed to have stopped in 2009, when a local TV crew caught a steady stream of tourists entering San Pedro."

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