Somewhere around Episode 3 of Narcos, Netflix’s recently released 10-episode retelling of the silver-and-lead-laden reign of the Pablo Escobar–led Medellín cartel, I realized I had read too many cocaine history books. I may indeed have a cocaine book problem.
The rise of the Escobar narco-empire and the pan-American war on drugs created to fight it, is a story still unfolding, and one that’s up to its bloodshot eyes with towering personalities, biblical violence, the CIA, communist insurgency, the Cold War, and vast GDP-altering oceans of off-the-books currency. At its height, the Medellín cartel took in $60 million a day; that’s more than $21 billion a year tax free. It’s a terrifying and vibrant true story of non-state shadow capitalism that Narcos somehow manages to portray with shrug-inducing blandness, each depiction of a real-life assassination hitting home with all the force of a Wiffle ball hitting the Weeknd’s numbed face. It’s got great production value, the acting is strong where it needs to be, the action is well shot. But the narration-heavy structure practically spits in the eye of the show-don’t-tell maxim. It’s a perfectly OK show. Which, considering the source material, is a rare and interesting species of failure. Andy Greenwald called Narcos “stepped-on Scorsese,” which could not be more perfect.
So maybe you watched Narcos and thought, Interesting, but I wish there were more meat on the bones of this glittering half-Scarface, half-Traffic cadaver. Good news — I’ve read a lot of stuff about cocaine.
Snowblind, by Robert Sabbag (1976)
I pulled a battered paperback copy of this off a friend’s dad’s entertainment-room bookshelf back in high school because I mistakenly thought it was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which someone’s cool and interesting older brother had mentioned as being a cool and interesting book. I read the first few pages and got sucked in anyway.
In Snowblind, journalist Robert Sabbag examines the succinct smuggling career of a young Long Island–born Icarus called “Robert Swan.” (Not, of course, his real name.) Propelled forward on sunny idealism and a stick-it-to-the-man hippie ethos, Swan, an upper-middle-class prep-school searcher, found his gateway to international smuggling by moving up from low-grade weed dealer to guy who moves weight. Cocaine just became a way to diversify his wares. A friend put Swan in touch with a contact in Colombia, and the rest was an exceedingly brief snippet of illicit history. Swan’s coke-smuggling career spanned 1970 to 1972, that fleeting moment in time, post–flower power, when both the Don Draper types running the machine, the second-wave hippies trying to re-create Woodstock ad infinitum, and the supply-side South Americans hadn’t yet grasped the multibillion-dollar depths of the black-market Pandora’s box that had been cracked open.
Reading Snowblind today, the naïveté of those times can steal your breath. Coke wasn’t viewed as addictive. When Swan started meeting with “Tito,” Americans didn’t need a passport to fly into Bogotá, just a tourist card issued by an airline upon presentation of a birth certificate. The anecdote that hooked me was a now almost laughably small-time scheme hatched by Swan involving two identical pieces of luggage, one containing the normal person-on-holiday bric-a-brac and the other containing the goods. It would never work today; practically nothing in Snowblind would. And that’s what makes the book such an interesting read now: It’s an ode to the drug trade’s age of innocence.
Kings of Cocaine, by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen (1989)
Grove County Press
Former Miami Herald reporters Gugliotta and Leen had a front-row seat for South Florida’s MAC-10-riddled cocaine cowboys era. This is the telling that Narcos should’ve been: bloody, tragic, and fascinating.
All the principal players and, just as importantly, all the street-level fallout, is investigated here in thrilling detail, including:
- The 1979 strip-mall hit executed by submachine-gun-wielding sicarios driving an armored panel truck that shocked local law enforcement and became known as the Dadeland Massacre.
- Former car thief, neo-Nazi, and transpo trailblazer Carlos Lehder (in Narcos, Lehder is played by Juan Riedinger and appears in only four episodes), who revolutionized cocaine smuggling by using airplanes. Casting about the Caribbean for a place to park his planes without the prying eyes of things like governments, Lehder found Norman’s Cay, a small Bahamian island consisting of some beach houses, a natural harbor, and, oh yeah, a 3,000-foot airstrip. Lehder bought up about 165 acres of the island’s real estate over the summer and winter of 1978-79, all in cash. Under Lehder, as many as 20 Dobermans roamed the island, accompanied by the requisite gun-toting sicarios.1 A vacationing Walter Cronkite sailed his 42-foot yacht to Norman’s Cay over Christmas break 1978 and, finding the harbor desolate, was told by an unknown man, “You can’t dock here.” He was lucky. In 1980, boaters found a yacht belonging to a retired couple from Fort Myers adrift off Norman’s Cay, peppered with shotgun balls, its decks soaked with blood, a corpse with its head blown off lying in the dinghy.
- Johnny Phelps, the lanky DEA agent in charge for Colombia, who learned to speak Spanish in rural Texas from the farm workers he grew up around. Phelps was convinced that cocaine would be the next big thing, despite little actual evidence in the form of busts and seizures to support his hypothesis.
- And, of course, Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa brothers.
And also prostitutes.
Kings of Cocaine feels slightly dated in that it misses the rise of the Mexican cartels and their particular brand of terroristic violence. But whatever. It’s probably the best book about the cocaine wars of the ’80s.
Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden (2001)
Atlantic Monthly Press
Bowden takes the ticktock format of Black Hawk Down, his 1999 book about the Battle of Mogadishu, and focuses it to riveting effect on the Colombian government’s hunt for the fugitive Pablo Escobar. In describing how Escobar moved from safe house to safe house, was harried by legit authorities and the gunmen of the shadowy paramilitary squad Los Pepes, and had his satellite phone calls to his family monitored by American intelligence to triangulate his position, Bowden paints a picture of an emperor on the run as the walls crumble around him.
“Silver or Lead,” by William Finnegan for The New Yorker (May 31, 2010, issue)
Among Mexico’s drug-trafficking organizations, La Familia is the big new kid on the block. It first gained national attention in September 2006, when five severed heads were rolled onto a dance floor at a nightclub called Sol y Sombra in Uruapan, Michoacán. The sign left at that scene: “La Familia doesn’t kill for money, it doesn’t kill women, it doesn’t kill innocent people — only those who deserve to die. Everyone should know: this is divine justice.”
The Power of the Dog (2005) and The Cartel (2015), by Don Winslow
These are both works of fiction, but are based on copious research into the Mexican cartels. Oftentimes, the only thing changed from the real world to the page is the person’s name. In The Cartel, the drug kingpin Barrera is clearly modeled after the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo.
Speaking of El Chapo …
“The Hunt for El Chapo,” by Patrick Radden Keefe for The New Yorker (May 5, 2014, issue)
Keefe chronicles El Chapo’s rise, his various escapes from the authorities, and his seemingly final capture at the resort town of Mazatlan. El Chapo is currently on the lam.