Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It

Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It


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Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It by Magnus Linton

When Pablo Escobar, Colombia's “King of Cocaine,” was killed, the world thought—or hoped—the cocaine industry would crumble. But ten years later the country's production had almost quadrupled, and since 2001, Colombia has produced more than 60% of all the cocaine consumed in the world.

Cocaine is both a curse and a salvation for Colombians. Farmers grow coca for cash but fear discovery. Families must cooperate with drug-funded guerrillas or go on the run. Destitute teens become trained killers for a quick buck in a ruthless underworld where few survive for long.

At the same time, tension grows between Colombia's right-wing government and its socialist neighbors in Latin America. With the failed US War on Drugs playing into this geopolitical brew, the future of cocaine is about more than what happens to street dealers and their customers.

Based on three years of research and more than 100 interviews with growers, traffickers, assassins, refugees, police, politicians, and drug tourists, Cocaína is a brilliant work of journalism, and an insight into one of the world's most troubling industries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619022935
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Inc.
Publication date: 04/15/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Magnus Linton is a Swedish writer whose work tackles controversial social, political, and ethical topics. He is the author of several acclaimed non-fiction books, including The Vegans (2000), a provocative account on the ethics of eating meat that turned then Swedish prime minister Göran Persson “semi-vegetarian”; Americanos (2005), a pioneering masterpiece exploring the rise of neo-socialism in Latin America; and The Hated (2012), which examines the emergence of the new radical Right in Europe. Cocaína was first published in Swedish in 2010 and was nominated for the August Prize, Sweden’s most important literary award. Magnus lives in Stockholm and Bogotá with his family.

John Eason is an American translator and educator based in Stockholm. He holds a PhD in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin, where he has taught Scandinavian literature and Swedish. John has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

Read an Excerpt

On the evening of 18 August 1989, I was in a taxi in Bogotá, on the way to meet a friend. The car was cruising down the colonial quarter, dodging potholes, but it was not until the headlights swept across the road as we crossed Avenida Jiménez that I was able to get a good look, and I realized the city center was dead. No one was hanging out by the statue in the park; no one but los gamines, street kids, sitting around like lifeless shadows with their noses stuck in bags, inhaling glue in an effort to numb their bodies against the impending cold of the night.

“¡Mataron a Galán! Galán’s been murdered,” said the driver.

Luis Carlos Galán was a liberal left-wing politician running for president in the upcoming 1990 election, and he had been the clear frontrunner. He had promised to reform Colombia’s backward landownership structure, but first and foremost he had attacked the way the elite was protecting a man who would go down in history as one of the most bloodstained mobsters of all times: the “King of Cocaine,” Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

We continued across the city. I wanted to keep talking about the murder, but the driver just shrugged his shoulders and dropped his head in what I would later recognise as a very common Colombian gesture. At the same time he uttered two words, a phrase that I would one day come to understand as a verbal accompaniment to the gesture. When poor Colombians say lo mataron — literally “they murdered him,” but meant more in the sense of “he was murdered” so as to avoid the agent — they make a dismissive gesture in which the neck muscles relax, causing the head to drop. The motion signifies that the topic is closed for discussion; that you have touched on an issue foreigners seem unable to understand: the fact that almost everyone in Colombia has a friend or relative who has been murdered. A child. A parent. A friend. A sibling. It is a collective experience.

But in this case, the comment was not made in relation to a family member but about a presumptive president. Consequently, in this context the words and the gesture took on a less personal, more public meaning. It quite simply established the fact that what had happened was not at all unexpected, as in this country most big conflicts end in not just one murder but several.
When I continued to question the driver about what he thought had happened, he only ever answered me with those same two words, and at my destination I silently handed him a roll of pesos and got out of the car. He drove off, but his stiff answer had left me hanging with all my naïve questions about the elusive agents of Colombia. “Lo mataron.”

One day in the 1990s, I went along with a Colombian friend, Alfonso, to buy a gram of perico — cocaine — in western Bogotá. It was a typical middle-class neighborhood, where families in some of the two-storey houses had tiendas: little kiosk-like shops in a front room on the ground floor, where they sold cigarettes and staple foods. We entered one of them, and Alfonso asked the young man sorting through packets of gum behind the counter if the “philosopher” was home.

The guy nodded in the affirmative. “Sí. In the bedroom upstairs.”
The question was superfluous, as Alfonso well knew, since the philosopher was paraplegic and could not leave the house. But Colombians are the politest people in the world, and an aspect of their good behavior is to never take anything for granted.

As we entered the living quarters I winced when I saw who was sitting there, but Alfonso quietly assured me that everything was okay. Four policemen were chatting around the dinner table, feasting on a chicken, and the philosopher’s wife was joking with the uniformed men in a familiar way while she assisted the maid to serve them.

“Good evening; good evening.” We greeted everyone as we circumnavigated the party and scuttled up a flight of stairs.

The bedridden philosopher, whose lifeless limbs were covered by a heavy layer of blankets, was flipping through the afternoon-television soap operas. He was somewhere between 60 and 70. Alfonso asked him how he was doing, and he responded with a wisecrack before asking, “How many?”

Alfonso held up his index finger.

The philosopher pulled a white envelope out from behind a burgundy silk pillow, placed it on the blanket before him, and accepted the cash.
We went downstairs and made another lap around the officers, wishing them bon appétit. “Gracias,” they said in unison.

In Spring 2007 I had a temporary job with a Swedish aid organization in Bogotá. We had arranged, along with other non-government organizations, a lobbying meeting with one of the most powerful diplomats in the country: Adrianus Koetsenruijter, the head of the European Commission delegation to Colombia.

The purpose of the meeting was to find out the European Union’s opinion on the human-rights situation in the country. New statistics indicated that the number of displaced people in “the world’s longest ongoing armed conflict” was rapidly approaching four million, and everyone was aware that the cocaine industry had become the primary driving force behind the war. Broadly speaking, the guerrillas controlled the coca-growing peasants, the paramilitary groups controlled the higher levels of cocaine production, and the government waged war on the guerrillas (with support from the US military) under the banner of “the war on drugs”; it was a strange triangle of combat, in which all the weapons were financed by some facet of cocaine production.

Koetsenruijter was in high spirits. He was about to resign and was pleased to be doing so, as a new job awaited him in another part of the world. We happened to catch him during some downtime, when he felt he could relax and speak off the record. He said it would be refreshing not to have to put on diplomatic airs anymore. But to be on the safe side, he requested that our conversation go no further, and we nodded in agreement.

He spoke from the heart. In his opinion, the sitting right-wing government had been good for Colombian society in many ways: cities were safer, people were more inclined to report attacks by armed groups, and there was even a left-wing party in Congress whose representatives could speak out without fear of being murdered. Yet when asked the key question — whether this progress was sustainable — he gave a deep sigh. “No.”

And then he said something I have often heard from people in Colombia, but never from a top-ranking EU official. “Legalization. There’s no other option. I don’t know a single person in any high-ranking political post any longer who isn’t in favor of legalizing drugs. But that, of course, is politically impossible.”

What these anecdotes illustrate is that every story about Colombia — and especially about cocaine — is complex or multifaceted. Just when you think an issue has been resolved, a more sophisticated layer emerges. And this continues until everything is so vague and all those involved seem so evasive that the only clear fact is that nothing is as it seems to be.

More than two decades have passed since that cold evening of Galán’s assassination, and it is with mixed emotions I now present a book that’s a bit of a failure. More than a decade ago I promised myself I’d one day write a book on Colombia in which the words “cocaine” and “violence” would be absent. This truly unique place is not just one of the most notorious countries in the world; it is also one of the most beautiful. My love of Colombians and the country’s stunning cultural richness has grown every year since my first trip in 1989, and this passion made me want to write a book about the other Colombia. I felt the country deserved it. Of course, it would not be a superficial work that avoided the social and political problems, but rather one that focused on tales other than the same old stories of Colombia as a place of drugs and violence, and nothing more.

In February 2007 I received a grant that made it possible for me to move to Bogotá and start this project. I began to compile amazing stories of Colombian adventures: such as the story of revolutionary newborn Julio, adopted by a Swedish couple, who searched high and low for his family roots on the outskirts of Cali; the tale of the historic city of Cartagena, and its metamorphosis from a dreary port to a hotspot perfectly designed to cater for all of the new global elite’s preferences; the account of young pregnant guerrilla fighter Andrea, and her desperate attempts to keep her baby despite the guerillas’ instructions to abort it; and the story of beauty queen Ximena and her unsuccessful attempts to become the first Miss Colombia not to have had plastic surgery.

The problem with this project, though, was that while the stories were certainly fascinating, it seemed that no matter where I turned, what I did, or which story I stumbled upon, everything always seemed to lead back to one thing. There was no way of getting around it: the presence of cocaine in modern Colombia was simply far too pervasive to be ignored, at least by a journalist whose main interest is politics. Histories and accounts of Cali, Cartagena, the guerillas, and the beauty industry, like most issues in the nation, were too interwoven with the cocaine industry and its influence on all aspects of Colombian society to dismiss. Cocaine takes precedence over everything. And it links most things together.

So I soon realised it was essential to revise the project. I decided that the work, contrary to my original intention, must center on cocaine, its history, and its consequences. I abandoned my first idea and have consequently written a book exclusively about Colombia and cocaine. In many ways it is a tragic turn of events — though I think an inevitable one.

The purpose of this work is not, as some might expect, to offer a solution to the problems surrounding the cocaine industry, but instead to describe these problems. Rather than providing answers as to how all drug-related misery could be eliminated — if such a thing were even possible — my goal is to expose a highly complex global problem at the ground level: to offer detailed accounts, in-depth experiences, and rarely heard opinions from the country that has suffered more than any other as a result of the worldwide cocaine boom and the related war on drugs.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to see cocaine for sale at local supermarkets, but I wouldn’t want to live in a completely drug-free society either. It is my hope that this book will interest as well as provoke those who love drugs, those who hate them, and all in between.

The question that occurred to me in the taxi on that cold night of Galán’s murder — What is Colombia? — would compel me to live a quarter of my adult life in Bogotá. But it was only later I realised that being in Bogotá on that fateful evening meant I had ended up in the center of a worldwide political drama; that cocaine was the very essence of a number of contemporary global conflicts and debates, a sort of surface-level descriptor of serious problems that would characterize the relationship between rich and poor continents in the years to come: the marginalization of third-world farmers by free-market economics, the United States’ need to find a new menace in the post-Soviet era, the resurgence of populism in Latin America, postmodern society’s desperate effort to fill the existential gap left by the death of God, and so on.
This book is an attempt to get to the bottom of exactly what happened in the span of those 20 years, between 1989 and 2009. Using Colombia’s troubling experience as a prism, but hopefully without further victimizing the country or its inhabitants, I have tried to point out some truly global stories about power and poverty in today’s world. I hope, of course, that the reader will find food for thought in them.

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