Context: Research for Cocaine: An Unauthorised Biography
Location: Via Telephone
Date: May 2000/June 2002
Interviewee: Trafficker #1
I’m witholding the name of this guy, for fairly obvious reasons. Let’s call him ‘Trafficker #1′.
Trafficker #1 was one of the first Americans to recognise the immense quantities of cash that good marijuana could generate in the United States. In the 1970s he set out to source vast quantities of the drug from Mexico, then moved on to Colombia, where the pot was better. His involvement in the trade (he eventually transported many millions of kilos to the US) soon brought him into contact with Colombia’s emerging cocaine cartels. Here he talks about how he used to move marjiuana into the US, the boats he used, the atmosphere at the time – and his experiences of cocaine.’
This is an amalgamation of two separate interviews, both conducted by phone, in May 2000 and June 2002.
Download: Download Interview (PDF)
I was a marijuana smuggler: I confessed to ** million lbs of marijuana from Mexico, **** and **** between 1971-****. But that was only what I admitted to…
Contact with cocaine during that period?
Yes, I had a lot of proximity to cocaine. The cocaine laboratories were right next to the runways I was landing at. I’d pick up my marijuana and also buy a kilo of cocaine for myself – at $2 per gram – because I was a heavy user. I first tried cocaine in 1971. Labs were always within 1-2 miles of the airstrips – walking distance: so everything could be transported by burro on small paths there and back that were too small for cars. Either that, or there was a small lab (series of them) called galetta – a kind of mobile drug producing unit.
The airstrips would always belong to someone, but they might be used by any numbers of others.
How did it work in Colombia at the time?
In Colombia, smuggling started because of the coffee trade. At the turn of the century … Colombia realised the value of the coffee trade and the major coffee families formed the Colombian Coffee Council – all the most powerful families. The north-east region of Colombia is a non-agricultural region: dry, sandy, dusty, desert. At the time there was no income there, no attention from the government, no real financial aid, no communications, no good roads. Nothing. All this region had, in fact, was its proximity to Curacao and Aruba -the great Dutch trading islands. And the Dutch were well known for trafficking and shipping. So there developed a trade in black market coffee between these islands and the north-east region of Colombia. By the 1960s Aruba was the world’s largest coffee exporter, yet it produced no coffee of its own at all…
In the meantime on its way back from Aruba etc were scotch and cigarettes (at the time the Colombian government had put a 200% tax on luxury items). So suddenly NE Colombia begins to get a bit wealthier. Smuggling was their only income. And the only rich people here at all were either the huge ranch owners, or the smugglers.
The American demand for drugs was a new thing. The Colombians never used drugs. People who used drugs in Colombia were burros – bums in the street. Use was practically nil. Until the Americans arrived.
Your contact with some of the lead players?
I had dinner with Carlos Lehder above Medellin but he didn’t spend more than two minutes at the table – he was always popping off to the office or to the bathroom. I also knew Eduardo ***** and Antonio *******. These guys were always asking me to get into the business. It was hard at the time to get reliable pilots. Pilot rosters were riddled with DEA agents. Either that or the pilot might just take your load of coke and then simply fuck off. But the thing was that I was coming back so often for marijuana that they knew I was for real. They knew. And I was always OK. I had fast, small planes and I could get through OK. So they would approach me and ask whether I wanted to fly a single plane with a couple of thousand kilos: I wouldn’t need any distribution system and they said I would just make so much money out of it. I resisted on a moral basis. I got into smuggling for money and adventure. I wasn’t into it seriously enough for that. A lot of the early marijuana smugglers were like that: against cocaine. They wouldn’t take [traffic] cocaine, although they were happy to use it themselves.
And the thing about cocaine users was that they were always unreliable. No-one wanted to work with them. Cocaine was so expensive that it led to breakdowns in financial accountability. These guys were ALWAYS behind on the payments.
So in the late 1960s the marijuana was coming from Mexico. It was easier to get it from Mexico than from Colombia: there was this huge great big border and Mexico was closer anyway. It wasn’t necessarily the Nixon thing that made people move to Colombia. I went there because the grass was so much better there. Mexico’s grass was never that good. You could only get really good grass right in the interior of Mexico; and the Mexicans were never that well organised. The only place they were reasonably organised was at the border itself – and that was where the grass was worst. So the move to Colombia was driven by a search for quality product