Cocaine Cowboys

It’s about the money.

At least, that’s what the former smugglers featured in Cocaine Cowboys and their filmmakers would have you believe. Their narration is one long tale of flashy cars, willing women, and a high-flying lifestyle that would tempt almost anyone into a little harmless trafficking. After all, if people are making the decision to partake in cocaine, someone’s going to get rich from it, and it might as well be you.

One former trafficker describes his start in marijuana before switching to cocaine. Apparently, he had never had any plans to deal coke before his first $1.2 million gig. And that’s a compelling enough argument to make the change, with cocaine the new celebrity on the block and marijuana falling out of favor with the Miami elite.

It was a compelling argument for Colombian crime lords as well, with the country primarily concerned with “Colombian Gold” marijuana until the early 1970s (Gootenberg 159). But after the 1973 Pinochet coup, rippling effects throughout Latin America made Colombia an ideal location to become the epicenter of cocaine smuggling to the United States (Gootenberg 146, 156). After all, according to Fortune magazine, cocaine is the most profitable industry in the world (Youngers 129).

And this is the most likely reason that scarcely a dent has been made in cocaine availability and use despite US efforts through the “Andean Initiative” to drive up prices (Youngers 129-130, 131). In the case of cocaine smuggling, great risk goes hand in hand with a reward too great to pass up. The question remaining: what human cost is too great to allow cocaine smuggling to continue?

In Cocaine Cowboys, the answer seems to be the publicity paid to certain high-profile deaths as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s in Miami. The seemingly flawless, victimless crime of smuggling drugs was met with sudden violence as Colombian smugglers began expanding to handle the US portion of their business as well, coupled with the influx of criminals on the Mariel boat lift. A few cases pushed the patience of the police too far, notably the Crown liquor store shootout and the death of an innocent three-year-old boy as part of Griselda Blanco’s drug wars.

The charmed period was over, with crime rising and economic growth falling as greater attention was paid to the cocaine business. In the wake of the events depicted in the film, the “Andean Initiative” was launched and the United States began pursuing a drug policy with much sharper focus on “source countries,” often at the expense of human rights, forging “unholy alliances” with regimes responsible for economic exploitation and brutal violence (Youngers 127).

Decades later, the country would publicly promote peace while privately funding and encouraging violence, conflating the war on drugs with murky involvement in Latin American politics and the support of dubious regimes, particularly the Pastrana government, despite noted failure to prosecute human rights violations (Youngers 142-143). The comparisons to US involvement in El Salvador are particularly troubling, given the notoriously violent junta and associated assassinations of priests. Apparently human rights violations in Latin America – out of the eyes and ears of US press and public – are not too high a cost to demand policy change.

Despite these seemingly extreme measures ostensibly undertaken to lessen drug use, the effects are negligible at best (Youngers 131, 145). Most harmed by United States policies are poor coca farmers, themselves victims of the drug wars; this uncomfortably hearkens back to INTERPOL treatment of Argentina as a center of smuggling rather than itself a victim nation (Youngers 143-144, Gootenberg 154-155).

The logical answer to such ineffective policies would appear to be refocusing efforts and finding a system that worked – perhaps the attention to education and treatment proposed, then abandoned by the Clinton administration (Youngers 130). At any rate, a focus on the source seems ill-advised at best, as it is impossible to eradicate cocaine production, and as long as demand remains high, smugglers will find a way to bring it to the waiting consumers. As Youngers illustrates, the Medellin cartel – the height of the cocaine business during the Cocaine Cowboys era – was shut down only to be replaced by the Cali cartel, and then multiple smaller, widely dispersed networks across Latin America (Youngers 128). With a ready American market, the allure of the reward is worth the risk of smuggling.

Of course, the United States government could focus on treatment plans. They could legalize cocaine, regulate it, and tax it heavily to lower its availability to minors and help make up the national deficit. They could decriminalize possession, or address the disparities between crack and powder sentencing, or the fact that despite accounting for a minority of all drug users, people of color make up over 70% of the population in prison for drugs, a racial disparity that holds true at every level of the system. But then again, that would prove detrimental to the prison industry, quite a moneymaker on its own.

In the meantime, poverty-stricken Latin America remains the biggest loser in the war on drugs, while those involved in the production and transport continue to find new ways to evade the US government.