Turning up to prison on drug smuggling charges, Thomas McFadden was confused when he was told he would have to pay to get in – and buy his own cell.
He had been transported from the cells were he had been quizzed by Bolivian police for 13 days in the back of a taxi and already being hassled for the fare by the angry driver.
The Englishman had been stopped from boarding a plane to Europe when cops from the narcotics squad known as the FELCN (La Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico or Special Force Against Drug Trafficking) found 5kg of cocaine in his expensive luggage.
Thomas, 26, was starving after being made to survive on one stale slice of bread a day during his questioning and had no way of paying the $5 entrance fee to the notorious San Pedro prison, let alone the $5,000 cops wanted for the privilege of having a cell.
Liverpool-raised Thomas, whose story is being too as part of a new documentary, Wildlands, about the the war on drugs, was learning the hard way that the legal system in the Bolivian capital of La Paz was very different to back home in the UK.
Thomas told the Mirror: “It was only the equivalent to $5, but I didn’t have anything and turned my pockets out to show them I had no cash.
“I had to promise the British Embassy would pay when I got a visit. That seemed to satisfy them.
“Then – even though he knew I had no money – the major told me I would need to buy my own prison cell.
“He produced this large blue book with lots of columns and what looked like dates.
“I was so hungry, I was struggling to understand what was happening. Then the corporal who had been translating, explained it was a list of cells that were for sale.
“Even though I couldn’t believe any of this was real, I asked how much they would cost.
“I could never afford the $5,000 they wanted, which I later found out was way over the odds.
“They obviously realised they couldn’t make any money out of me and I was shoved through an gate with metal bars.
“I was so hungry and exhausted, I collapsed.”
When he came to in the prison courtyard, Thomas expected to be inside a decaying jail.
A Coca-cola advert on the side of the wall, brightly-painted doors, balconies and flower beds weren’t what you would find in prison.
Children playing hopscotch and football made him think he had been having a bad dream and not behind bars at all.
But he was inside the walls of South America’s most infamous prison, where he was to spend the next four and a half years.
The prison that is supposed to house a few hundred inmates now has a population of 3,000.
Some sections like one called Posta are like a five-star hotel, where the inmates who are big-time dealers or wealthy politicians, have carpets and jacuzzis inside. TVs and microwaves come as standard.
At the other end of the scale live those inmates who don’t have enough money to pay for their own cells and food starve to death in the freezing labyrinth of alleys inside the 15-metre high walls.
As he recalled his rollercoaster life inside, it is hard to imagine 5ft 6ins, quietly spoken Thomas would become the jail’s most famous inmate.
But Thomas – who is now a chicken farmer in Tanzania – has had a life that has been full of ups and downs, tinged with tragedy.
He said: “I was born in Tanzania, but came to England to live with my uncle in Liverpool when my parents died in a fire when I was three-years-old.
“It was difficult. I didn’t get on with my uncle’s wife and didn’t go to school.
“I had to do jobs around the house and they didn’t feed me enough.
“Neighbours who were Indian saw what was happening and took me with them to live in Mumbai when I was 15.
“There I had everything I wanted.
“But I was introduced to a wealthy Sri Lankan who smuggled heroin. I wanted to make money, so I became involved.”
Now a blue-suited businessman Thomas admits he spent several years criss-crossing the globe making good money smuggling drugs, but claims it was just as much for a thirst for adventure.
It was only his rude awakening inside San Pedro helped persuade him to turn his back on the evil trade for good.
In hindsight Thomas is lucky to have survived his first few weeks.
Any newcomer would be targeted by the thugs that prowl the poorer sections of the jail where beatings and stabbings are rife. Many thought Thomas was a despised American and was savagely beaten every day.
He recalled: “It didn’t stop until I could fight back. I hardly went out to begin with because I was worried what would happen. I would go to the washrooms really early in the morning, so that I wasn’t attacked.”
On one occasion, Thomas mis-timed his trip, ended up surrounded on a stairwell by seven attackers but had a lucky escape that sums up the strange set of rules inside San Pedro.
Despite trying to run away, Thomas was pinned down, kicked, punched and throttled.
“He was about to get stabbed when the attackers suddenly stopped and let him go as a lookout hissed ‘Nina’ as a little girl skipped down the stairs.
The unspoken set of rules that meant women and children were not exposed to the violence was one of the things Thomas had to get used to as he settled into prison life.
But it wasn’t long before he witnessed the horrific flipside of this family-friendly set-up when a mob found out that three men convicted of gang rape had been sent to the jail.
The culprits were dragged over the concrete courtyard in the heart of San Pedro to a small swimming pool, where they were beaten and whipped with electrical cable.
One was smashed over the head with a metal bar and another stabbed. One of them literally had his brains beaten out, recalled Thomas.
As they tried to scramble out of the blood-soaked pool, the lynch mob hurled them back.
He said: “I had ever seen anyone killed or even a dead body, and don’t think anyone deserves to die like that.
“That was too much for me. I wasn’t used to violence. I was a businessman.
“But if you go into prison for rape there, you have got to expect to die.”
While the shocking brutality was never far from the surface throughout the jail, Thomas slowly became less vulnerable to attacks as he became an accepted member of the bizarre community.
He was even able to buy his own cell in the five-star Pinos part of the jail within months of his arrival after persuading friends from Europe to help with the cash.
He still owns the second cell he bought for $1,800 in Alamos, though the contract states it cost just $400. The reason for the discrepancy was so he could avoid paying as much tax to the guards who had to be bribed every step of the way.
He said: “When I returned to the prison last year, I realised it hadn’t been sold. I had planned to do it. But I’m not sure how I would be able to do that in reality.”
Thomas became friends with the governor after he helped other prisoners learn English.
But when he followed two female friends into Thomas’ cell, the lag was horrified by the request for five grams of the “best cocaine”.
He recalled: “I hadn’t used drugs at all before being imprisoned in San Pedro but slowly got to use them all the time. Cocaine was relatively easy to get as it was made there in the poorer sections of the jail.
“But I was terrified this was a trap and tried to get out of it. Though the governor was insistent. He wanted to party with his friends.
“I only realised I was safe after he made lines of coke with his American Express and snorted some through each nostril.”
This pattern of extraordinary events continued with Thomas able to have a free run of the jail as long as he could pay.
Even a night out on the town in La Paz was on a long list of bribes.
It cost $100 and an extra charge for the guard to accompany him.
And on one night out he even managed to meet a girlfriend.
He said: “I’d go out as often as I could afford to. I would go to a restaurant to have a nice meal, or to chase the girls.
“Then I met Yasheeda who ended up coming back to my cell and staying there on and off for months.”
It was this Israeli girl who Thomas fell head over heels with who was the inspiration for the tours of the prison that earned him a mention in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
He said: “She came back with her friends to begin with. The Israelis all went around in groups of 10 or 20, so there were quite a few.
“She was the one who suggested I set up the tours, which I ran for three years of my stay inside San Pedro.
“Sometimes we had as many as 70 people visiting. It did cause some jealousy with other inmates who wanted to get in on the act, but I had the advantage of being able to speak English and had already bribed the guards. They were happy as they got their cut.”
Thomas ordeal inside the jail should have been coming to an end when new spurious charges were levelled against him. And he enlisted the help of Australian lawyer-turned author Rusty Young who was writing his story.
He said: “We had to bribe a judge to let us out of the prison while I waited for this new trial and then make a run for the border.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got back to England. I just knew I had to keep a promise to myself not to get involved in drug trafficking. That’s how I had ended up in San Pedro.
“Looking back, it was crazy, like a scary dream.”
Wildlands is available on Amazon and iTunes from March 6, the companion documentary to Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands.
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