In South Florida we tend to think of the golden age of cocaine (if it can be called that) as the 1980s – iconic Colombian drug lords like Pablo Escobar and cocaine cowboys marauding through Miami. But according to British-American journalist Toby Muse, cocaine's real golden age is…today.
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Muse's gripping new book is called “Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels – from the Jungles to the Streets.” It follows the drug – often dangerously up close – from Colombian coca fields to murder-plagued barrios to trafficking on fast boats and semi-submarines.
Muse spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett from Washington D.C. about the new cocaine boom, why he insists the drug war is unwinnable – and why that's as much America's fault as it is Colombia's.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: Toby, why do you say today is the “golden age” of cocaine – and that the end of Colombia's long civil war actually helped make this the drug’s golden age?
MUSE: There is more cocaine out there than ever before. Pablo Escobar couldn't have imagined the amount of cocaine that's out there at the moment. The reason is a failing peace process between [the Marxist guerrillas known as] the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, and the Colombian government.
The FARC was controlling much of the territory where the coca was grown, and the Colombian state needed to get to these corners [post-war] and do something they had never done before: establish a minimum of law and order. And the government dropped the ball. And who arrived instead? Narco militias, who raced to take control of all of this coca. And they have told the coca farmers to keep growing coca.
But why did you want to write this particular book about cocaine?
Well, because the cocaine trade is made up of dark passions. This is a trade that runs on lust, sex, murder, treachery. But over the years, it’s become increasingly described in anemic academic terms of coca production graphs. It seemed to me that was like learning about sex from a biology book.
Kilo is a remarkably revealing chronicle of how bushels of coca leaves become kilos of cocaine – with way too much depravity and murder along the way. You lived in Colombia for more than 15 years; but even so, how did you gain such intimate access to people like the Medellín cocaine trafficker named Alex?
The narcos of today opt for a lower profile. People call them "the invisibles," men and women hiding in plain sight. Many look like young professionals.
So 10 or 11 years ago, I was going to a famous fashion show in Colombia and a man was trying to get in with two women. We were in the press access line, and I told the guys with the clipboards, "Hey, look they’re with me." And the guy said, "Hey, I owe you a favor." It turned out that he worked in the social world of the underworld. And through him, I started meeting all of these different people – and eventually this cartel drug trafficker I call Alex in the book.
That access was still risky, though, and there are some moments in the book when you had genuine reason to feel your life was in danger, right?
It's a feeling of dread when you're around these men and women, who kill at the drop of a hat. Ethically, of course, I couldn’t know that they were going to murder someone; I can’t know if they’re going to ship cocaine next Thursday. But one time I was with them and they were talking about how some business partners were going to fly into the country from Mexico the next day. And the next morning I woke up and I looked and I saw Mexicans had been arrested entering the country.
And that whole day, I thought, this is it. They're gonna think I'm a snitch. They're gonna think I spoke to the police. And this cartel contact calls me and says, "I need to meet you right now. It's urgent."
But you were OK in the end?
I had totally misunderstood the situation. This guy said, "I need to borrow some money off you." But, you know, you're constantly on edge.
Especially around guys you hung with like the sicario, or cartel hitman, called Cachote.
When you get to the heart of the cocaine industry, it's pure madness. There's a scene in the book with Cachote where he's praying to the Virgin of the Assassins. Praying to the Virgin Mary that his bullets will land right and he as the sicario will be OK. And I asked him, "How can you believe in the Catholic religion and yet kill for a living?" And he came up with this just mad explanation of, well, if God doesn't stop me from doing it, that means the person I'm sent to kill has done something and this is a divine punishment.
You also argue cocaine has “stolen the souls” of too many rural Colombian communities.
Absolutely. You can see these dignified little towns; they grew coffee and raised cattle. And then one farmer brings some coca seeds from outside. Immediately everyone starts seeing how much money he's making. A new pickup truck; a big-screen TV. So now everybody starts growing coca. But then the prostitutes and the nihilistic kind of partying comes in. The narco-militias – and the dead bodies – start turning up. This town has sold its soul, and it’s very hard to pull themselves out.
Still, the book emphasizes that Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world – and there’s much more to its people that cocaine and violence.
It’s hard to reconcile these two sides of Colombia. There is that tragic history of violence. On the other hand, this one of the world’s cultural hotspots; these are some of the warmest people on the planet – and most are incredibly hard-working and honest. It’s easy to abide by the law in a functioning state like Switzerland. But even in those parts of Colombia where there is no functioning state, most continue to be good people. To me that means a lot.
You conclude the drug war is unwinnable. And you point out that Washington's response to that reality is always: more drug war. But you also remind us that “if Colombia has failed the world, the world has failed Colombia.”
Colombia can point at the rest of the world and say, "What have you done to diminish the demand for this drug?" This business runs on demand. Part of the reason I wrote this book is because I would have interview after interview with high-ranking members of the Colombian police or army, and they would talk about how they’re winning the drug war. Then the interview would end and, off the record, they would tell me, "Of course we can’t win the drug war."
Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who oversaw the [civil war] peace deal, to his credit said while he was still in office that fighting the drug war is riding an exercise bike: you pedal, you pedal, you sweat, you sweat, then you get off, look down and you haven’t moved a millimeter.
Toward the end of the book you’re on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that’s hunting cocaine boats in the Pacific. And you talk to an officer from Miami who remembers what cocaine did to his city a generation ago – and he insists any cocaine they interdict out there makes this a victory. Does he have a point?
Yes, they will say every cocaine kilo we stop is one less kilo in those cities. And that’s undeniable. But I just don’t see any diminishment of the drug trade. I just don’t see victory.
Which is why many people you interview in the book suggest legalizing cocaine is one solution because it would rob the violent cartels of the illicit billions they earn. But while marijuana legalization is becoming a reality in this hemisphere, is it really possible for a more addictive and destructive drug like cocaine?
Legalization is a possible answer, but I don’t see the advocates doing the necessary political work. And while the majority of cocaine users don’t have [an addiction] problem, for the minority that do it’s an absolute hell. They end up overdosing and dying or they end up losing everything.
Either way, I think we just need to start talking more honestly about this drug. Because in the meantime countless more Latin Americans are going to die in this war on drugs.