I’ve done my fair share of cocaine.
I’m not saying that to shock. Obviously, I want to grab your attention. But some of you know it anyway, and I want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.
Because this week I’m going to talk about drug cartels (and, yes, I’ve written a song about them!).
Have you been watching Narcos? It’s a series on Netflix, their version of The Sopranos.
Except that Narcos is a true story, about real people.
And these people – well, it’s hard to believe we share a planet with them.
Mind you, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The first series of Narcos is the story of Columbia’s Pablo Escobar. It starts off as the story of a folk hero, at least to his own people. He takes on the government of Columbia, which is impervious to the needs of ordinary people, who are poor and neglected beyond our understanding.
So Pablo gives them jobs, builds schools and hospitals and ends up more popular than film stars or singers.
Which, of course, the government cannot tolerate. What happens next is an escalation of violence that makes you question humanity and your own sanity – how could you possibly have thought Pablo Escobar was anything but evil?
Well, bad as he was, the Mexican cartels are worse. Transgressors are tortured, skinned alive (flayed), decapitated, dismembered, hung from motorway overpasses. In one six year period to 2012, 100,000 people were slaughtered in the interests of cocaine trafficking.
And yet Americans alone spend about $30bn a year on the cocaine that is causing untold misery just the other side of their border.
Not to mention the environmental damage. The process of maceration – turning the innocent coca leaf into a paste, the basis of cocaine itself – requires a mixture of kerosene, sulphuric acid and lime. This appalling cocktail, once it’s done its job, is allowed to run off into local waterways.
You will never stop these people. There’s always someone ready to take their place. The means of smuggling becomes ever more sophisticated. In 2011, US officials found their first narco submarine. No-one knows how many there were/are. Costing $2m to build, one submarine can carry $60m worth of drugs along riverbeds and into America.
But even as the first submarine was discovered, the narcos were already investing in drones. They are always one step ahead.
I stopped buying cocaine in 1982, when small time dealers started ‘stepping’ on it. There might be five or six ‘stepping’ stages – bulking up the cocaine with baby milk, talcum powder and laxative (oh yes!).
But then it got worse. As the cocaine ( £60 a gram) became less and less of a constituent, the familiar ‘sting’ to the nasal passages was missing. So they started using scouring powder (Borax in America, Ajax in the UK).
Ajax – yeah, that stings alright.
And then, of course, as the cocaine element in your £60 envelope diminished, so did the expected effects of the drug. So they replaced even more of the cocaine with amphetamine sulphate (£15 a gram) for an extra kick.
Unfortunately, amphetamine sulphate (speed to you and me) is highly addictive. Which, of course, brings a whole slew of new problems with it.
Stopping using pure cocaine was easy. Stopping using something that is less than 20% cocaine (but still at cocaine prices) bulked up with the highly addictive sulphate would be a different proposition.
In the intervening 33 years I’ve accepted a line here and there maybe half a dozen times. It has routinely proved to be crap. And disgusting crap at that.
So: torture, death, addiction, environmental pollution, all for a fraudulent product; not to mention one trillion dollars flushed down the toilet in the ‘war on drugs’ – what does it take till a supposedly civilised society throws up its hands and accepts the case for legalisation and control?
It was Richard Nixon who started the war on drugs. He allocated a budget of around a half billion dollars. Most of the money was to be spent on treatment and rehabilitation of addicts. Today America alone is wasting over $100bn a year on an actual war – fought against narco cartels whose annual turnover is sometimes larger than that of the country they operate in, and whose private armies are better-equipped than the army of their sovereign state. (You think I’m exaggerating?).
Throughout the world we already have the means of clean and controlled manufacture. In our international network of regulated pharmacies we also have the means of controlled distribution and sale.
Wipe out the narcos raison d’être overnight: take drugs off the street, tax their sale to fund treatment for addicts, reallocate the $100bn war-on-drugs fund (£10bn in the UK) – isn’t it a no-brainer?
Meanwhile, there’s a Mexican tradition of corrido, songs that – in a pre-digital era – spread the news, and revolutionary ideas and expressed the feelings of ordinary people.
Today there’s a nasty extension known as narcocorrido – songs that celebrate the drug cartels, their acts of violence and the power they wield.
These narcocorridos are not spontaneous outbursts of admiration. They are coerced. “Write a song about me and make it respectful and adulatory – or I will kill you.” As Pablo Escobar himself said: “Take my silver or take my lead (ie: my bullet)”.
In other words, there’s no middle ground. If I ask for your help and you refuse, you will be killed. As will your family. And anyone else we can think of who will help to spread the message that you don’t say no to the cartel. And if they haven’t invited you in, you still don’t go against them in any way.
No-one doubts it. The media in Mexico has been extremely circumspect in recent years, simply because large numbers of journalists and broadcasters have been slaughtered as a means of intimidation. In some areas the local cartel literally controls the media.
Even blogging isn’t safe. They may be barbarians, the cartels, but they are not living in a barbaric age. They have the technology to track you down. Bloggers have been killed. It’s a brave soul who speaks out.
So the narcocorridos are no surprise. Given a choice between a horrible death and putting up a YouTube video of a song celebrating those who will kill you if you don’t, what would you do?
Well here’s what I’ve done. This is a narccorrido, but not sung in praise. I wouldn’t be so brave if I lived in Mexico, believe me.
And if you want a cracking good read, and an education in the drug trade, I highly recommend Don Winslow’s Power Of The Dog (2005) and its more recent sequel, Cartel. Brilliant novels on any level.
And the Channel Four documentary The Legend Of Shorty, and Cocaine: History Between The Lines, an exceptionally well made documentary recently shown on Sky and currently up on Vimeo.
If you’re a user, you won’t want another line until you can get it from your local Boots.
This is a Narcocorrido
That tells of their cowardly ways
This is a Narcocorrido
But not sung in praise
It tells of how they flay the living
Skin them alive as they scream
Then pray to the dead for the giving
of life as a dream
Cut your throat and take your head
to the mall so children can see it
Hang your police from a freeway overpass
so you get the message
Oh to be a narco hero
You can have your own corrido
Written and sung in fear
Oh it must make you proud
Don’t forget it’s me who’s running the
town and the city and country
The federales are my army and who can help you?
Sing me a song mi cantante
Or I’ll kill your mother and sister
An accordion and a bajo sexto
y muchas corista