Cocaine is a complicated issue in the United States. Although Miami has calmed down since the 1980’s, the era portrayed in the Cocaine Cowboys, illegal drugs are still a major issue in the country as evidenced by frequent drug related arrests. Every link in the chain of the drug trade is important, from the producers to the shippers to the customers, though it’s the third link that is usually downplayed in federal arrests. Without a doubt, the Miami of the 1980’s could not have been possible without a high demand for cocaine among the American public. Few will admit that the “drug wars” will truly end, not when the cartels are dismantled, but when Americans stop demanding substances like cocaine.
No one can deny the important part that South America plays in the drug trade. “The Andean region is the source of the bulk of illicit drugs that ultimately wind up on U.S. streets” (Youngers 128). Even prior to 1980 (when the film takes place), Peru and Bolivia, countries where coca was a traditional crop, was producing cocaine for export as well as for the local population (Gootenburg 137). Peru’s role was important to jumpstart the export business (Gootenburg 146). Chile is also significant for being the country of origin for the first person (a Chilean sailor) ever charged with and convicted of cocaine smuggling in the United States in 1939 (Gootenburg 138) as well as being home to the city of Valparaiso, one of the early sources for “cheap” cocaine according to a report from the FBI in 1948 (Gootenburg 139). “Cuba was the hub for burgeoning international cocaine traffic and tastes during the 1950s” (Gootenburg 150) according to the Gootenburg article. Cuba’s importance is also obvious in the film as Cuba’s exports of “undesirables” increases the numbers of willing hitmen for the cartel. The country also acted as a connection point between South America and the U.S during drug shipments. And of course, Colombia of the 1980’s is the drug cartel center, where many of the men in the film received their pay.
However, what the film Cocaine Cowboys doesn’t always make clear is that the drive behind this drug activity can largely be attributed to the American drug consumer. The U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs (Youngers 126), a huge market for the producers of cocaine in South America. The dealer and the shipper interviewed in the film were both American men, one from New York with connections to the mafia while the other was a pilot from Cuba. During the late seventies and early eighties, the dealer’s main customers were not poor junkies, but wealthy American “weekend warriors.” Doctors, lawyers, and other members of the upper class were the only people who could afford to use cocaine, a far cry from the stereotypical user of cocaine, lower-class Latino men. Later, the middle class American got caught up in the craze. Even before the 1980’s, Gootenburg notes that cocaine was popular at “Lima’s favorite water hole for forginers” (Gootenburg 140) and becoming popular among “curious American tourists” to Cuba (Gootenburg 150). At every stage in cocaine’s history, American demand and compliance has played a major role in the spread of the drug’s popularity.
However, as can be seen in the Gootenburg and Youngers articles, U.S. policy tends to focus more on stopping cocaine at the production end rather than at the consumer end. The U.S. policies in producer countries can often be more harmful than helpful, giving power to local military organizations with atrocious human rights records (Youngers 127). In the war against drugs though (or more appropriately the war on drug producers), the human rights of the local populations are considered “collateral damage” (Youngers 126); anything to keep the drugs out of the eager hands of the U.S. population. Ultimately, without the demand of U.S. drug users, the drug trade in South America would be a much smaller problem. After all, you can’t sell what no one’s buying.