By Marcela Osorio Granados, EL ESPECTADOR, April 18, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The British-American journalist Toby Muse presents in his most recent book [Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels—From the Jungles to the Streets] an X-ray picture from the interior of the networks of cocaine trafficking in Colombia. It shows that the struggle against drugs has been a lost battle.
Following the drug trafficking production chain step by step, from the plants themselves in the Colombian jungles, to the sales in the streets of the world, made it clear to Toby Muse that, contrary to what many believe, the golden age of cocaine in Colombia was not that of the great cartels of the ‘80’s. It’s now. It’s what we’re experiencing now. He’s certain of that after living in this country for 20 years, after traveling all over it as a reporter, writing about its evils and its virtues and witnessing how the fight against drugs in Colombia has turned out to be a failure of goals and statistics repeated periodically for two decades, without indications that anything has been solved. It’s a phenomenon that affects the whole world, that’s true, but as well said by that British-American journalist, the majority of the dead keep on being Colombian.
Muse arrived in this country in 2000 as a correspondent for media like The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, and CNN. He traveled all over the country trying to give a human face to a context of armed conflict that’s difficult for a foreigner to imagine and understand. Walking the narrow paths and talking with the people was how he began to comprehend how drug trafficking, in spite of everything, has been the common denominator of the stories that were marked by the war. “A lot of people have the idea that the golden age of drug trafficking was the age of Pablo Escobar. No, not for a minute. We are living the golden age right now. There is more cocaine now than ever,” he says.
That’s why he took on the job of writing a book, using people who live their lives on the very theme of the drug trafficking system, the details of a world that is based on the poverty and misery of Colombia’s campesinos. Coca growers, coca leaf collectors, hit men, witches, prostitutes, and drug traffickers are part of the narrative created throughout the more than 300 pages. By means of following one kilogram of cocaine, he navigates the scenario of drug trafficking in the 21st century. At the end of the journey, one question remains: Is Colombia condemned to continue producing cocaine?
The book follows one kilo of cocaine, starting with the coca plants in the Colombian jungles. What did you find about the farm work in these parts of Colombia?
When you’re out there you realize that nobody is getting rich with this. The campesinos that plant coca are barely surviving. It’s true that there isn’t the money in cocaine that there used to be, but it’s the only income that’s guaranteed. For example, a family turns to planting pineapples. Who is going to transport a ton of pineapples for hours on a motorcycle, a boat, or a truck? How much would that cost? And let’s say that you could. When to get them to the market, they will tell you that you won’t make a cent if you don’t lower the price. It’s impossible. The coca is the only sure thing. I was surprised to find how many campesinos would rather stop growing coca, but they have no alternative. Add to that the subject of the prices. In 2018, when I was investigating, 15 years had passed without a rise in the price of coca base. Growers were receiving 1.4 million pesos (about USD 345) for one kilo, the same amount they received in 2005 in places like Tumaco or Llorente, in Nariño Province. All of the campesinos’ expenses had gone up, but they kept on receiving the same amount, because it’s a free market and they have to accommodate the purchasers, which are the illegal groups that operate in the area and impose the prices.
Using that scenario as the backdrop, why do you think that the program for substitution of illegal crops has not been very successful?
The substitution program is a failure. I went to hear the pilot plan for the project in Briceño in Antoquia Province. I talked with the people and there was a feeling of optimism, and the campesinos felt proud because they were going to be an example for the whole country. I went back two years later, in 2018, and the outlook was entirely different. They were disappointed because they never received the payments that the government had promised, even when they had pulled out their coca plants voluntarily. The government didn’t keep its promise and that is the tragedy of the whole peace process. That’s why we now have more coca than we ever did.
How do you see that failure reflected in the dynamic of the coca business?
I’ve spent 15 years traveling around Norte del Cauca Province, to municipalities like Toribío and Tacueyó, places where the presence of the ELN had never been reported, but now they’re in charge. The power has changed in the regions in the midst of the promises not kept and the government’s abandonment. When we look at 2016, much of the coca in Colombia was grown in territories controlled by the FARC. The peace agreement signed by the government called for the guerrillas to lay down their arms and for the government, for the first time in history, to bring to every corner of the country some minimal rules of law and order. But the government simply couldn’t. This was the dream, that some kind of education and health would arrive in the countryside. That didn’t happen, and what you see now are stories of the coca growers building their own school by charging a toll on the narrow paths, and it took them three years collecting the money to get it built. The government didn’t do a thing, neither the national nor the local government. And how are you going to pay the toll? With coca. These people have been totally abandoned, and then the government and the police are criminalizing them because they plant coca.
And in terms of security?
Since the government isn’t coming, other new groups come, many of them, and they are fighting for control. In Catatumbo, for example, there are EPL, ELN, FARC dissidents, Clan del Golfo, and they are even talking about the Mexican cartels. Even though I don’t think they are coming with a lot of power to control the territory, they are working as partners with the local groups. The chaos is total. And in this there is a theme that is as sad as it is interesting. In Catatumbo a lot of campesinos talk about Megateo, who was in charge in the area for many years, until he died in 2015. They’re a little nostalgic because when he was the only one who exercised control, there was more order in the business. The campesinos worry because now there is more than one boss or armed group in the area and that means war. Besides, it’s a region with a very hot frontier and a lot of problems. There, nearly 100% of the coca pickers are Venezuelan. I told the story of the women who work as prostitutes and almost all of them are Venezuelan. While we were out in the fields looking at the coca plantings, new groups of Venezuelans were walking to Colombia every day, looking for a better future. And in the midst of all of that, what surprised me in all of that misery and bad management in Venezuela, there were no coca plantings. All of the plants are on the Colombian side.
After harvesting and production, the next link on this life of the kilo of coca is the link of the drug traffickers. What did you find when you went into that world?
The next part of the book is about the criminals, the people that do this for a living. By using a hit man, we can show the ecosystem of cocaine and of that world. It was an experience with a lot of surprises; everything is driven by the idea that “we make all the money we can today, because we don’t know about tomorrow” or “you have to spend it all today, because we could always have a turnaround tomorrow”. It’s a dark world, of sex, greed, and death. But I also tried to show the eccentricities of these people, like for example, the hit man who prays before doing a job, the narco who has his own witch.
As a matter of fact, one of the personalities in the book is a drug trafficker, and through him you try to explain how the business moves from within. How do you actually see the character of the narco?
They have learned that they have to keep a low profile. I think that the narcos learned that lesson at least 15 years ago: if their face appears on the front page of El Espectador, that’s not good, and right away the CIA, the Police, and the Army are going to be on top of them. That’s why there is now a new term, and it’s that of the famous invisibles; they work from the shadows. The last of the old guard, I would say, is Otoniel, the boss of the Clan del Golfo. The other drug traffickers now want to present the image of businessmen, executives, and invisibles. There’s another interesting fact about that. The drug trafficker that I talked with told me that they needed more order in the world of cocaine. With so many traffickers, everything has turned into chaos. If we look at the case of Medellín, for example, after Don Berna there wasn’t just one king; nobody is completely in charge. That generates chaos and confusion, and cocaine is always seeking after order; everybody needs to know where he belongs.
How are people experiencing this culture right now in the wards and neighborhoods of Medellín?
It’s changed a lot. One of the reasons that I wanted to write a book is that there is always an official story and an unofficial story. If you go up to the poorest wards, you meet men and women who don’t see any future. They are always looking for the same thing: to be somebody in this life. It’s that people have no opportunities to get ahead, because in many parts of Colombia, if you’re born poor, you die poor. And it shouldn’t be that way. In those parts of the country, the boys can’t see any future besides being part of a gang. It’s terribly sad that that option does exist for them.
After the process represented by the traffic in drugs, the destiny of the kilo is the consumer who buys the product on any street in the world. What happens with this last link in the chain?
Throughout many years of interviewing different people and authorities in Colombia or the United States, and talking about the war on drugs, the same thing has happened: I would turn off the tape recorder and they would say “obviously we are not winning the war. Obviously, we can’t win it.” That’s another reason I wanted to write this book. If that’s the case, then we all ought to be concerned and try to find a solution, because every day more people die in this war on cocaine. Much more so in Colombia, which has always suffered more greatly. Ex-President Juan Manuel Santos himself tried several times, when he was still the President, to start a global conversation, to talk about this, but it was shameful the way the world reacted, because nobody said anything; everybody was afraid, and now we are condemned to continue with the same war.
In that case, has the world failed Colombia?
Colombia ought to ask England, the United States, and Europe some very serious questions; questions about what they are doing from their side to end the demand, because nobody is doing anything. I live in Washington and I have a lot of friends in London. They tell me that there is more cocaine there than ever. Cocaine has come back with amazing power after a few years of lower consumption, and the governments, here in the United States, give talks in the schools and that’s it. That’s the most important part of all of this; without a reduction in demand, Colombia is condemned to keep on producing cocaine.