Thanks everyone for joining me to day. It's been great and hopefully I've been able to answer your questions. I hope you buy my book and enjoy and collectively let's think on a new way to approach the issue of drugs - what we're doing ain't working. I'll try to check back later if there are any more questions. Thanks again.
Do you think legalization would kill the narco trade and reduce violence over all?
There's a conversation with a drug trafficker in my book, where he gets angry at the idea of legalization. The underworld thrives in the black market. He saw that if drugs are legal, the profits evaporate. And if the business becomes legal, then the actors have legal means to resolve disputes (as it's illegal, they use their killers to resolve disputes at the moment). Al Capone, El Chapo, Pablo Escobar are not particularly remarkable men - they're vicious, ruthless and merciless. And those qualities thrive in the black market we've created. We turn these monsters in the wealthy men. But full legalization? Proponents of that policy have a long way to go politically. Most people are terrified by the idea of widespread availability of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
What's your perspective on the indictment of Maduro in Venezuela and FARC?
I think there's tremendous frustration among many of Maduro's opponents that he's held on so long when they anticipated the freefall of the economy to eject him from office. The latest indictment aims to increase pressure on those around him to remove him. The Chavisitas and FARC have a long friendly history, ideologically in the same bed. That they're trafficking cocaine together? I'd want to see more hard evidence.
What do you mean by their witches?
Literal witches - they all believe in witchcraft and sorcery. Latin America can be a melting pot of indigenous beliefs, Christianity, and beliefs brought over by Slaves from Africa. And a widespread belief in superstition and witchcraft is one such result.
How much hesitation did some (civilian) interviewees give? I imagine the cartel does not make nice with those who speak ill of them, and I'm curious as to what journalistic protection you could have (or did) offer.
Great question - there was one time when I know I couldn't speak to all the people I should have. I traveled to a violent slum to interview a gang leader. He gave me his version of how they ran the slum, helping people, keeping order. I really wanted to interview the people who live there to get their side of what it's like to be extorted, bossed around, was the protection and order worth it? But to approach any of them would have put a target on their back (nothing, and I mean nothing happens in these slums without the gang's ok). I offered everyone in the book the chance to withhold identifying details, their names etc - the last thing I want is someone dying because of my work. I even changed names when they didn't ask. A small coca-farmer out in the countryside might not understand the full impact of giving his full name and location when he talks about planting coca and working with narco-militias. But I know what that looks like in black and white.
Did you ever feel like your life was in danger traveling through a narco-militia controlled zone? How do you negotiate your way through those dangers?
There were zones I reported from that I would think twice about returning to. When out there, the narco-militias were really just starting, nothing was fixed. Now, their path is clear -bombs, kidnapping and massacres. The communities were incredibly protective of me, understanding I was to show the reality of their lives. One night, a man I assume was a member of one of the militias shouted out that he was going to "kill the gringo, son of a bitch." That night was stressful, but I was too far in the jungle to do anything but wait for morning and go (never really sure how serious that was, probably wasn't). Dealing with the cartels was stressful - they have this aura of violence that just gets to you. And there was a few coincidences that had me worried they thought I had shared information. Best way of moving through these zones is to be as transparent as possible: I'm a journalist, who wants to speak to me, let's chat and if not, I won't ask again.
Why did any of these people meet with you. What's in it for them besides risk?
The people in the countryside, the coca-farmers and coca-pickers want the rest of Colombia to see the reality of their lives, that they're not getting rich, they're barely surviving growing coca. The cartel people spoke to me because I had met them years and years and as long as I didn't enquire about specific crimes, they were happy to open up. Some people treat these interviews like therapy, as a way to understand how they got to where they are, to justify their lives. And I also suspect (although this was never confirmed) they hoped I might serve as a contact if they ever needed to get in contact with US authorities for whatever reason.
Why did the peace treaty between FARC and Colombia ultimately fail? What's the most likely chain of events between the two entities in the next 5 years?
There is hopefully still time to save the deal. Most of the rebels laid down their weapons with the goal of returning to civilian life and they formed a political party - a small minority formed the dissidents to keep fighting and traffic cocaine. So that succeeded. But the peace process was supposed to see the government take over all the territory and bring basic law and order, minimum of healthcare, education for these remoter zones. And that simply hasn't. More narco-militias have been born to take over the fields of coca the FARC gave up. And so now a new round of bloodshed that impacts the small farmers the hardest, the most vulnerable. I think the FARC political party will have some troubles ever gaining widespread popularity because they are some crimes they committed, such as kidnapping of civilian politicians, that they still seem to have trouble understanding how repellent this was to virtually all Colombia (they justify as their countermeasure to the imprisonment of their comrades).
Is it time to give up the war on cocaine?
Former president of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos compared the drug war to riding an exercise bike - you pedal and pedal, sweat and sweat. And after half an hour you haven't moved an inch. Twenty years ago, a massive multi-billion US aid package called Plan Colombia aimed to take down cocaine militarily. The goal was to cut coca - the raw material used to make cocaine - by half. Twenty years later, with a record cocaine crop, the Colombian government has announced a new goal: by 2023, to cut coca by half. The drug war moves in circles. And in those twenty years a lot of people died in this drug war. I don't have the solution, but reporting from the ground, I can say that our current approach is failing.
You never really see the occult side of things in the movies and documentaries. What was it like interacting with their witches? Are they commonly utilized like the ones in Mexico?
Not too sure about Mexico, but in Colombia these narcos don't believe in anything - they'll deeply cynical, caring only for grievances, women and money. Believe in nothing, you'll believe in anything. So they're all deeply superstitious - perhaps unsurprising when operating at the heart of chaotic cocaine. This narco had his own witch who would cast spells to make shipments of cocaine go "invisible" in front of police, or spells to injure his rivals and protect himself. The contact killer prayed at the Virgin of the Assassins, begging the Virgin Mary for protection in upcoming jobs and success in murdering for hire (for two works of fiction on this phenomena check out The Virgin of Assassins by Fernando Vallejo and Rosario Tijeras by Jorge Franco). You may not believe in all this, but you have to acknowledge when there that you are in a world that believes in this - deeply.
How do the cartel leaders survive for so long without being assassinated by one of their own looking up take their place or by competition? How do they keep their power, control, and loyalty internally, and safe from external rivals?
Treachery is absolutely the law of the cartels. Old-style cartels could be divided in to the business sides (production of cocaine, the routes of where to ship, the contacts abroad) and the military wing (in charge of the assassins, taking out rivals). In a lot of these cases, the commanders of the assassins would take control of the whole cartel because they had the immediate muscle to do so (such as Jabon in northern valley cartel). Otoniel runs Colombia's biggest cartel, the Gulf Clan Cartel and that is mainly based on family in the immediate circles around him. But everyone knows his time is nearly done - both Colombian military, police, DEA and CIA are working to take him down. Now, what much of Colombia is facing is many smaller, independent drug traffickers, men and women keeping low profiles but exporting - collectively - more cocaine than ever before.
Any advice on writing a book for the first time? any ethical dilemmas you encountered when interviewing the book's subjects?
The best advice I can give is keep the book that inspired you to write next to you at all times. That will encourage you when you stall. And be disciplined about word count - whatever works for you: daily or weekly. Make sure you stick to it. Finish that first draft and then you have a book. There were plenty of ethical dilemmas in interviewing contract killers and drug lords. They tell very self-serving stories, and you have to find that balance that understands what makes a contract killer, the conditions that formed him, but also have the distance to say he's an awful person. These are not formal, sit down interviews, no, you need to hang out with them. Some of these people are tremendously charming and when you're hanging out with them it can be easy to forget - these men and women do horrific damage.
Thanks for the Ask me anything. Glad you made it out of there ok. Just takes one guy on a bad day to decide you aren’t who you say you are.
What do you think would happen to the workers and players, in foreign countries, if come and Heroin were legalized in the US? Specifically, what do you think would happen if the US aid for fighting narcoterrorists and drug cartels dried up? And what about the gangs in the slums, who would lose lots of money from the drug trade? How could you see the local drug trade thriving - or even surviving - if the billions of drug money starts drying up?
Sorry for the wall of questions, I have more if you have time. Thanks for your responses.
Legalized, the cocaine cartels would collapse. The knock-on effect would be to remove across the world a major source of financing for mafias and gangs in Latin America, Asia, Europe, US, Africa, Middle East etc who profit from the black market in cocaine. But it wouldn't solve all these countries problems - there are gangs in cities because kids grow up marginalized, lacking opportunities, and maybe knowing the system is rigged against them. We need to change all that. If the drug war continued and foreign aid was withdrawn? I think Colombia would struggle. It's in a bad position - many in Colombia know the drug war is unwinnable (see above former president Santos' comments) but because their biggest ally- the US - demands it, they keep fighting it (and some in Colombia are very comfortable with the hundreds of million in military aid sent over). And thousands of Colombians have died in this drug war.