June 27th, 2016
A middle-aged “cook” poured leaves into a bowl before crushing them with a rock then adding gasoline as two younger guys went past, holding machetes. We were on a coca plantation somewhere in the badlands of southern Colombia, near guerrilla-held territory. I told myself that if we ever bumped into any Marxist rebels, I’d tell them tell them my mother was in the Communist Party’s youth wing—we’re on the same team.
But paranoid thoughts still filled my mind: At any moment an army helicopter would land, soldiers would jump out waving M-16s and we’d have to flee through the jungle, where my gringo ass would immediately be caught by one of their boys hiding in the bushes, and I’d have to make some really awkward calls back home: “Mum, it happened again…”
Left: the “cook” at work. Right: the finished product. Photos by Niko Vorobjov.
Back in London, I used to deal in wholesale amounts of weed as well as smaller bits of coke and MDMA, until I stupidly got caught by stepping off the wrong Tube stop onto a station crawling with police dogs, which won me a year’s free meals and gym membership courtesy of Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Of course I’d seen movies like Scarface and Blow, but I had no idea what the other side of the drug trade was actually like. So naturally when I visited Colombia earlier this year, I wanted to find out.
Turns out cocaine in Colombia isn’t that hard to come by, especially if you’re a gringo tourist. Just stand outside for about five minutes in any given party town and you’ll be approached by some kids peddling booze, cigarettes, snacks and usually a gram or two of the country’s national product. It’s rarely cut and even if you get ripped off, it doesn’t matter—at about $5 a gram, it costs less than a Happy Meal.
Although cocaine is (sadly) what Colombia’s most known for, not that many Colombians actually do it. In fact, some of them would look at you in disgust for even bringing it up. Our pleasure is their pain.
Colombia is the biggest producer of the white stuff in the world, a title it occasionally shares with Peru (and once upon a time, Bolivia). A kilo of coke costs a mere $2,500 from a dealer in Colombia, but that goes up to around $54,000 stateside or $87,000 on the streets of the UK. Even taking into account logistics and shipping expenses, that’s a lot of money to fight over.
Last week, on June 23, the government and the country’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, pictured top), signed a historic ceasefire agreement. It ends (officially, at least) over five decades of fighting which has claimed over 220,000 lives and driven more than six million people from their homes.
Many Colombians are hopeful, but skeptical.
“The peace is a lie,” Federico, an IT professional from Bogotá, tells me. “I’m not sure if it’s going to change things around here.”
“My family thinks it’s bullshit,” says Dougie, who hails from the Casanare region. “With the paras still about and the other rebel groups, the fighting is gonna continue. Maybe there will be less violence going on for the time being, but it won’t be long before it starts kicking off again!”
While the papers might have been signed, 50 years of nonstop warfare does tend to make you more cynical about these things. Colombia has had an extraordinarily bloody recent history, closely connected with the cocaine trade. And as we wait to see if the ceasefire holds, those of us who have been involved in selling or using cocaine in much safer parts of the world would do well to review our own culpability—as well as its limits.
Colombia’s conflict dates back to 1964, when oppression by ruthless landowners drove the impoverished peasantry to take up arms and unite into the leftist FARC. The landowners, backed by certain politicians, hit back with the help of an extreme right-wing militia known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC).
The rebels resorted to terrorist tactics; bombing nightclubs, kidnapping for ransom and using child soldiers, while the paramilitaries massacred innocent villagers, ripping them apart with chainsaws and machetes. The Colombian army has not been much better, murdering civilians and dressing them in FARC uniforms in a series of “false positive” killings.
And the conflict, on both sides, has been fueled by cocaine. Both FARC and AUC bankrolled their war effort by smuggling the drug and protecting coca farms. As the war went on, whatever higher political goals they originally had in mind disappeared and the fighting became essentially between two rival criminal factions. This is especially true of the AUC. It was officially disbanded in 2005 (after which its links with dirty politicians were discovered), but since most of the paramilitaries lacked transferrable skills for the job market, many of them fell back on their experience to turn to conventional gangsterism, swelling the ranks of crime syndicates such as the Urabeños and the Office of Envigado.
In Medellín I paid a visit to Comuna 13, formerly one of the most dangerous barrios in the city and a recruiting ground for teenage sicarios (hitmen).
The population is made up largely of native- and Afro-Colombians fleeing the civil conflict, but even here they were not safe.
As we got to the top of the hill, my guide pointed to a garbage dump in the distance, La Escombrera. There, she said, the remains of hundreds of people are buried. They were victims of Operation Orion: In 2002 the military, backed by local mobsters and paramilitaries, launched the two-day assault to flush out the local guerrillas and set up a base in Comuna 13. Officially the government only recorded about a dozen fatalities, but soldiers went door-to-door rounding up suspected “terrorists,” and hundreds of civilians are still “missing.” Exhumations at La Escombrera are continuing; the mass graves there are estimated to hold up to 300 bodies.
Medellín was of course the former base of operations for Pablo Escobar, probably the most infamous drug lord of all time, a man who made Al Capone look like a choirboy. Escobar was so loaded (Forbes magazine had him listed as the seventh-richest man in the world back in 1987) he actually had his own personal zoo on his ranch at Hacienda Napoles, located approximately halfway between Medellín and Bogotá.
After his death, no-one wanted to look after the animals in his zoo so all the hippos escaped. Now there’s a herd of wild hippos living somewhere in Colombia, all because of Escobar.
Hacienda Napoles is a weird place, filled with life-size statues of dinosaurs (because if you had billions of dollars in coke money, why wouldn’t you have dinosaurs all over the place?) and some monstrosities that I can only describe as a “zebraptor” and “tricera-shark.”
There was a runway too, where planes would land carrying coca paste from Peru, and fly out carrying the finished product to Central America and the Caribbean.
But it wasn’t all lavish, tacky, dino-decadence. Escobar was also known for his reign of terror. When the authorities tried to bring him in, his Medellín Cartel went to war with the state, assassinating presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán and blowing up Avianca Flight 203, killing 110 innocent people.
Pablo and the other traffickers held such sway that the Colombian government actually let him surrender on his own terms in 1991. He would go to prison, but not just any prison: La Catedral, his custom luxury jail, which he had designed with a bar, soccer field, jacuzzi and a giant dollhouse for his daughter. He bought off all the guards and lived like a king, hosting drugs-and-hooker orgies that would make Charlie Sheen proud—until the feds started planning to move him to a conventional prison in 1992.
That’s when he simply walked out, sparking a nationwide manhunt where he was pursued not only by the police, but also the American Navy SEALs and his rivals from the Cali Cartel before finally being gunned down in 1993.
Back in Medellín, one of Pablo’s old chauffeurs drove me and some other tourists to a hillside house overlooking the city. There lived Roberto Escobar, Pablo’s brother and accountant to the Medellín boys. We went on a tour around his house, which was covered in bullet holes.
One of the bullet holes at Roberto Escobar’s house
A few years ago some bandits showed up looking for Roberto, who’d been released from prison in 2003. They planned to kidnap him and force him to lead them to some of his brother’s hidden loot. Police arrived, there was a shootout, and two of the gangsters were killed. There was a motorcycle parked outside, a gift from Frank Sinatra (Ol’ Blue Eyes was rumored to be Pablo’s connect to the Italian Mob).
Roberto himself came out to greet his guests, shake our hands and pose for photos in front of his Wanted poster. He doesn’t talk much, owing to a mail bomb having exploded in his face, which also deafened him in one ear. It’s kind of sad; he and Pablo were kings, but now the surviving brother is basically a tourist attraction.
Left: the author with Roberto Escobar. Right: a Wanted poster featuring Pablo and Roberto Escobar.
After taking us to the house, the chauffeur drove us to the graveyard that is the final resting place of Pablo Escobar Gaviria and his family, along with the one bodyguard who stayed with him to the end. To this day, people still come to leave flowers or piss on his gravestone.
While Escobar might have been the worst criminal, terrorist and mass-murderer the country had ever seen, for many, especially Colombia’s poor, he was a hero, building schools, churches, soccer stadiums and even a whole neighborhood (“Barrio Pablo Escobar”) for the community.
Also buried in the cemetery was Griselda Blanco, aka the “Black Widow,” so called because she killed three of her husbands. Blanco was a former sex worker who ran the US side of Pablo’s operation from Miami. After serving her time in the States she came back to Medellín. One day in 2012 a kid rode up on a motorbike and blasted her in the face. Clearly someone from the old days had heard she was back in town.
Another grim reminder of the violence in the drug trade came when I went by one of Escobar’s mansions in Guatapé, an hour and a half out of town. This was his second-biggest property after Hacienda Napoles till it got blown to high heaven by Los Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar), a vigilante group made up of disgruntled policemen, special forces and the Cali Cartel who made it their mission in life to slaughter anyone even remotely connected to Pablo. It certainly would have been impressive, had it not been for the 200 kg of TNT planted by the Pepes in 1993. What hadn’t been destroyed by the bomb was torn apart by looters looking for a hidden stash of Escobar’s treasure.
So, yes: Between crime bosses, paramilitaries and communist insurgents Colombia has suffered greatly. And, as government propaganda videos are keen to point out, cocaine has been behind a lot of it.
In light of which, wouldn’t it be true to say that we, as consumers of said substance, are partly responsible? And having been the supplier makes me particularly guilty, as I’m even closer to the source than your friend who keeps disappearing into the bathroom at the office party.
I’ll admit it; I have blood on my hands. My participation in this unsavory business has contributed, even if indirectly, to torture, massacres, disappearances, kidnappings and the driving of millions of people from their land.
Cocaine dealers are not alone in this, however: The same could be said of many other industries. Arguably, anyone who’s worked in a phone shop, for example, is equally guilty.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s most important source of coltan, a mineral forming vital parts of components in mobile phones, laptops and other electronics. From the late ‘90s to the early 2000s, the country was the scene of the deadliest battlefield since WWII. In what is sometimes called “the African World War,” a multitude of neighboring countries and their proxy tribal armies fought each other in a conflict that killed over five million people. Although the situation has calmed down somewhat, coltan mining in the country is still controlled by a variety of armed factions including bandits, rebels and corrupt generals. And in addition to all this human misery, coltan mining has also driven the mountain gorilla to the brink of extinction by way of destruction of its natural habitat and hunting for bushmeat.
So following this logic, if snorting a line of coke leads to death and destruction in Latin America, then checking Facebook on your iPhone leads to genocide in Africa. Of course, the difference here is that one’s legal and one isn’t. But the very fact that cocaine is illegal is what fuels this predicament.
If it were regulated and controlled, maybe you could buy Fair Trade Cocaine with the profits going directly to struggling Peruvian farmers. As it stands, ordinary, drug-using members of the public have to line the pockets of people like me—and the people who murder to protect their profits.
Blood may be on the hands of the dealers and users—but the drug warriors, the system of prohibition itself, are absolutely drenched in it.
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It doesn’t end with the violent deaths. As with mining in the Congo, cocaine has a huge environmental impact as well, as land is cleared and waste chemicals enter the soil. But again, these problems can be traced back to prohibition. Not content with this, the drug warriors (the Colombian government, backed by the American DEA) continue to spray coca fields with glyphosate, a poison which not only destroys the coca plants but also contaminates the water supply, ravages the local ecosystem, may cause cancer and other serious health problems in humans and destroys crops like bananas and corn which farmers depend on.
There’s very little evidence that spraying coca results in a net reduction in cocaine; as one plantation falls, another just appears deeper in the jungle. Spraying does, however, damage the livelihood of the coca farmers.
You think these people are rich? In my drug-dealing days I remember visiting a hash farm in Morocco where there was no running water, and their sole source of entertainment was a crappy old TV which only seemed to show one of two things: Arabic news and music videos from the ‘70s from the likes of Boney M and the Jackson 5.
So what the hell else are they gonna do? Open a lemonade stand? They couldn’t even afford a flushing toilet for all their drug money! And it was the same in Colombia. The family showing me around their set-up didn’t have a landing strip, or a to-scale replica of Jurassic Park in their back garden; they lived in a wooden shack in the middle of nowhere. Coca is simply the only crop that lets them afford even that.
The legal regulation of cocaine is a long way off. And even when it arrives, there is every possibility that the people who come to control it will exclude the poor farmers who depend on it now—much as has happened with the legal marijuana industry in the US.
Meanwhile, Colombians who are skeptical of the new “peace” have got a point.
Neighboring Venezuela is likely to plunge into revolution or a coup any day now, destabilizing the region, while smaller guerrilla outfits like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN) as well as the ex-paramilitaries-turned-
With a global cocaine market worth around $88 billion dollars (est. 2008), where prohibition cedes control to those who operate outside the law, it’s not likely that all those heavily-armed young men and women in the forest are going to start looking for regular jobs any time soon.
Niko Vorobjov was born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union. His family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain. There, he served a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. Writing letters to the outside inspired him; he now works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared in publications including Salon