the Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World

Cocaine is big business, and getting bigger. Governments spend millions on an unwinnable war against it, yet it's now the drug of choice in the West. How did the cocaine economy get so huge? Who keeps running it behind the scenes?

On the road that divides La Candelaria from Las Cruces, two of the oldest neighbourhoods of Bogota



In The Candy Machine I travel the trade routes from Colombia via Miami, Kingston and Tijuana to London and New York. I meet Medellín hitmen, US kingpins, Brazilian traffickers and talks to soldiers and narcotics officers who fight the gangs and cartels. The book traces cocaine's progress from legal ‘pick-me-up' to luxury product to global commodity, looks at legalization programmes in countries like Switzerland, and shows how America's anti-drugs crusade is actually increasing demand.


Cutting through the myths about the white market, this is the story of cocaine as it's never been told before.


Excerpts from
The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World


Baltimore is the last resting place of Edgar Allan Poe, the United States' finest gothic fabulist. It also provides the setting for The Wire , an equally haunting depiction of American vice. In 1950, the biggest employer in Baltimore was Bethlehem Steel.


Jobs for the unskilled had been easy to come by, and thriving communities had grown up around the steel plants. Today the biggest employer in Baltimore is Johns Hopkins Hospital, a leader in health services, education and technology. The rise of Johns Hopkins has brought employment opportunities for some, but it has never been able to absorb the numbers thrown out of work by the decline of heavy industry in the city. It is grimly ironic that a hospital should become a major city's principal employer, and that the treatment of the sick has become such a huge employer in the United States. Ironic too, that so many Americans should be taking drugs of one kind, while their government fights a war on drugs of another kind.


But the greatest irony of Johns Hopkins is that one of the hospital's founders, Dr. William Stewart Halsted - to this day considered the single most innovative and influential surgeon the United States has ever produced - was a clandestine drug addict for 40 years. Halsted depended on a daily fix of 180mg of morphine, a habit he inadvertently acquired while trying to overcome an addiction to cocaine. How did such an eminent surgeon maintain a heroin addiction while building one of the best hospitals in the United States? Halsted had better access to quality morphine than anyone in Baltimore, but he also had a real stake in conventional society, and a vocational calling which helped to keep his drug habit within some bounds. By 1989, one hundred years after William Stewart Halsted helped found Johns Hopkins Hospital, one in eight adults in Baltimore had a serious drug abuse problem, a rate unmatched by any other city in the United States. Unlike Halsted, most of them had neither a stake nor a vocation to temper their compulsive drug use.


The destruction wrought by hard drugs in cities like Baltimore met with little resistance. Growing divisions in the black community weakened unity and resolve at a time when both qualities were in short supply. In 1968, the poorest fifth of black households was getting by on an average of $10,600 a year. By 1995, this figure had actually dropped to $10,200. The richest fifth of black households meanwhile, had seen their average annual income go from $60,000 to $84,000, and many had used that money to move to the suburbs. In better times, the children of the poor have had opportunities to make their way up and out through the education system, but this is not what happened in Baltimore. In 1990, one in five high school seniors in the city dropped out of school before they even graduated. One of their parents was very often a single woman, with few skills to trade and laden with childcare responsibilities. Many young people grew up without the support of their parents, the encouragement of their peers and elders, or reasonable educational opportunities.


Without the education or training that might have allowed them to exploit opportunities, the new jobs created by the information-driven economy often passed inner city residents by. In response to what was politely termed “economic restructuring”, the unemployed went back to school, enrolled in what training programmes they could find, found good jobs and struggled to keep them, or settled for temporary jobs in service industries, hoping to land themselves something permanent. Some moved to other states or other countries, looking for work or an easier life elsewhere. Others resorted to what James Scott has called “the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, and feigned ignorance.” Growing numbers fell out of the legal economy altogether. Many sought solace and found what was to be had from alcohol or drugs.


I sat out a freezing Sunday afternoon talking to Ted in a diner near his house in Williamsburg, New York. Ted has spent the past 20 years selling cocaine, and was adamant that, for his customers at least, cocaine use was unproblematic. I asked him why he thought he and his friends had been able to take cocaine for so long without significant problems, whereas crack had been the undoing of so many people. “Discovering drugs is a part of adolescent risk-taking. By the time I was 25 I had done every drug you could name ten times. You don't want someone to discover drugs as an adult. By the time I had any money at all, I was pretty much inoculated against becoming an out-of-control drug addict. The person who is going to become an out-of-control cocaine user is going to be someone who is naïve about drugs. In the 1980s you had a whole lot of poor, minority folks who were naïve, at least about crack. ‘Studies show that poor people are often depressed?' No fucking shit. In the ‘80s, New York was really fucked up. There were no jobs. All of a sudden crack comes along, and you get to be poor and feel great. Of course you're going to get out of control with that shit.”


Poverty goes a long way in explaining why so many people developed crack habits; it also accounts for why there were so many willing suppliers. Ricky Ross, who benefited from the Contras' cocaine smuggling, and went on to become the first and biggest crack dealer in the United States, told me how he first got involved in selling drugs. “I was a youngster. Uneducated, uninformed, unemployed… I mean, you could just keep going on with the ‘uns'. I was looking for opportunities. I wanted to be important in the world, somebody who was respected. Basically I wanted the American dream. So I guess I was ripe for the picking. The opportunity came in the form of drugs, and I latched on to it.” Marc started selling crack cocaine in South Jamaica, New York City at the age of sixteen. Like most of those I talked to about their drug selling careers, he had served a prison sentence, which had given him ample time to consider how and why he had become involved in the cocaine trade. “There's a song by Jay-Z, and he says ‘even righteous minds go through this.' You can be a good kid, and just get caught up. It's the fast money disease. Say you need the money for something, right? Back when things were popping on the streets, it was nothing to double your money up. People do it for all kinds of reasons. Personally, I was doing it to belong, and to prove that I could do it better than my brother. For some, it's just the law of the streets, you know? But like this guy Andre I knew used to say ‘you can't do the right thing the wrong way.' There were people out there who had good intentions. But ultimately that didn't solve the problem.


Narco-corridos (drug songs)

The weakness of the economy is a big driver of the cocaine business in Mexico, as it is in the United States and Jamaica. MORE

The devaluation of the peso after the financial crash of 1994, and the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement the same year, forced thousands of Mexican farmers to sell up. Farming families have been pulled in opposite directions. Sons have crossed the border with the United States illegally to work as gardeners, kitchen porters and fruit pickers in California and other southern states. Daughters are often to be found working hundreds of miles away, in one of the thousands of maquiladoras, the assembly plants that sprang up along the border after 1994 to produce goods for the US market.


The invasion and occupation of Iraq has dominated newspaper headlines in the United States for the past five years, but domestic politics in 2007 were notable for rising hostility towards Mexican immigrants. There have been calls for a huge wall to be built along the border to keep them out. Groups of vigilante Minute Men patrol the border on the look-out for illegal migrants. In border cities such as El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, as many as 15% of the population is living in the United States illegally, and many of them have suffered at the hands of officers from the United States' Border Patrol. Many of them would doubtless argue that whatever their political differences, the economies of states north and south of the border are inter-dependent. For the businessmen of the United States to demand cheap labour, only for its politicians to score points by penalising those who supply it is senseless.


This is the backdrop to the rise of cocaine smuggling in Mexico, and explains why in private, many Mexicans are reluctant to follow the United States' line on the war on drugs. Such sentiments find expression in the narcocorridos, which offer a version of events at odds with the grandstanding of authorities on both sides of the border. The corrido is a genre of polka that became popular in Mexico over a hundred years ago. To the sound of the tuba and the accordion, the corrido singer would relate his stories of village feuds, the lives of the migrant labourers who worked the fields of California and the women they left behind when they headed north. After the Dry Law made alcohol illegal in the United States in 1919, corridos prohibidos [forbidden ballads] were written about the tequila smugglers and their outfoxing of the United States' Border Patrol officers. One is the Corrido de los Bootleggers, which includes the verse “The crop has given us nothing/ There's nothing else to say/ Now the best harvest/ is the one the barrels give us.” Another includes the lines: “Here in San Antonio/ and its surroundings/ they never catch the bootleggers/ only those who work for them."


Mexico has been producing and smuggling drugs into the United States since the late nineteenth century. Today the trade is bigger than ever: a large part of the heroin distributed in the United States is made in Mexico. Shutting down amphetamine laboratories in the United States only displaced them south of the border, where they are even harder to locate, so Mexico also produces most of the methamphetamine consumed north of the border. In 2005, Mexico produced more than 10,000 tons of cannabis, making it the world's second largest marijuana producer. Incredibly, around 30% of Mexico's farmland is said to be sown with either marijuana or opium poppies.  


Alcohol and marijuana are widely consumed in Mexico, but until recently, most Mexicans regarded the drug that smugglers like to call “cola without the cola” with great suspicion. Cocaine smugglers met with the disapproval of the corrido singers, whose songs warned of the consequences of dabbling in what was regarded as a strictly gringo vice. The narcocorridos are a graphic illustration of how Mexican attitudes to cocaine have changed over the past 15 years. Walk into any of the many record shops in downtown Los Angeles that cater to Mexican-Americans, and you can see how the corridos prohibidos have been revived and radicalised by large-scale cross-border cocaine smuggling.


The most famous singer of narcocorridos is Rosalino “Chalino” Sanchez. In the early 1990s, Chalino migrated from a hill village in the northern state of Sinaloa, where the Mexican drug-smuggling tradition is strongest, to Los Angeles (where the American drug-taking tradition is strongest). Until Chalino came along, Mexicans born in California had usually taken their cultural cues from the native urban culture, listening to West Coast hip-hop, and dressing like their black neighbours. Chalino was a reserved, stubborn man with a reedy voice, but his celebration of the exploits of a new generation of drug smugglers struck a chord with West Coast Latinos. They found Chalino's stories of how a cocaine trafficker evaded detection, made a fortune, and went back to his village to build himself a house with a pool cheering. If the trafficker then paid for a school to be built, he got added kudos for doing what the Mexican government had all too often failed to do.


Thanks to Chalino, Los Angelinos started to dress like Sinaloan drug-traffickers. Out went the hip-hop gear, in came wide belts with engraved plate metal buckles, lizard-skin boots and frilled jackets. This is not to say that drug smuggling became cool. To understand the narcocorridos, or American “crack music", as celebrations of criminality misses the point. Most of the young Mexican-Americans in the audience at a Chalino gig knew next to nothing about smuggling, but they responded to his narcocorridos because he didn't apologise for being a village-born Mexican. What Chalino celebrated was the power the drugs trade had given to the powerless. For Mexicans who have had little choice but to leave their own country to work as second-class citizens in the United States, cocaine is the hero of the piece. It has given Mexicans something that Americans are happy to pay good money for, something that miraculously gains rather than loses value when it crosses the border.


In 1992, Chalino Sanchez was shot and killed after a gig in Culiacan, the state capital of Sinaloa. Following his death, the narcocorrido genre that he had pioneered went stellar. It remains big business to this day: narcocorrido singers have gone on to appropriate elements from gangsta rap, posing with bazookas and AK-47s on the covers of albums sporting titles like Mi Oficio es Matar [Killing is my Business]. As the cartels become more powerful and their violence more extravagant, the distinction between commentator and apologist has gradually been lost, with lethal consequences for the singers of narcocorridos. Valentin Elizalde's A Mis Enemigos [To My Enemies] became the signature tune of Sinoloa's drug-smuggling cartel, a tribute that rebounded in 2006, when gunmen from the rival Gulf cartel shot and killed Elizalde. In many cities of the United States, the authorities have asked radio stations not to play narcocorridos. The DEA has reportedly trailed the composers of the songs, as they have the composers of crack music. In some cases they have even taken singer-songwriters to court, charging them with complicity in the drug smuggling offences they describe in their corridos.


Some of today's narcocorridos certainly celebrate the exploits of drugs traffickers. But most offer a more nuanced interpretation of the smuggling life, one more inclined towards the tragic than the epic. Los Tres de le Sierra by Los Norteños de Ojinaga for example, includes the lines “You damned Americans don't know what we go through/ To get you the drugs you like so much.” Drug dealers can be simultaneously proud and ashamed of their actions, a sentiment apparent in much of the music about the drugs trade on both sides of the border. In border cities like El Paso/ Ciudad Juarez, where drug smuggling is pervasive, most traffickers do not regard themselves as criminals, anti-heroes, or victims of poverty, but as regular citizens trying to make a living. The services they provide may be welcomed and reviled in equal part, but this contradiction, as familiar to the migrant as it is to the smuggler, is one that many residents see as just part of the rough-hewn fabric of border town life. Many have attitudes akin to those of the illegal poachers in Africa described by James Siegel. “If a poor schmuck who is a subsistence hunter has bad luck outside a park area and then crosses into the national park hoping for better luck, he knows that he is breaking some central government law, but he doesn't see himself as a poacher per se. The common person sees the game warden as some stupid policeman for the state, not looking out for the community's interest at all. It becomes a game of cat and mouse, a silly and destructive contest.”


see also:

Testimonies collected during the writing of 'The Candy Machine'

Thirty-seven Articles and Papers (mainly) About Cocaine [PDFs]

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