The logistical details are somewhat more complex: the smuggler must use the most reputable shipper available, because those loads are least likely to be inspected; one has to prepare for the “electric arches,” found since the nineties in every big shipping port or freight airport, that scan incoming shipments (cocaine appears on their computer screens in a vivid yellow); customs and shipping officials at both departure and arrival are usually bribed; land transportation at the arrival port can be tricky (after all, this is cargo by the ton, with lots of extra cargo disguising the contraband). This is why the expert sistemista, an Italian slang term for large-scale cocaine smuggler, will arrange only two or three shipments per year. The sistemista’s “all the eggs in one basket” theory of risk management might sound odd, but for the cocaine smuggler the real risk is less that a shipment might be seized than that someone might talk. Every shipment, even smaller continental shipments (typically from South America to the United States), involves lots of people—the cocaine must be bought, packaged, transported, repackaged, transported across the border, received, unpackaged, and at last (what a sigh of relief!) received by the wholesaler at the other end—and every extra set of hands is someone who might roll over on the smuggler to save his own ass, or give a cop a tip for a few thousand bucks. The police seize shipments when they get lucky, or when sistemistas, ready to make a large shipment, send a decoy shipment to put them off the trail. They catch smugglers when somebody tips them off.

I Am The Market is told in the first person by an unnamed, very successful retired cocaine smuggler who has a gift for storytelling and detail—and, like most good storytellers, a penchant for exaggeration. (Luca Rastello is the Italian reporter who took the story from the unnamed source.) He boasts that every dollar invested in cocaine will return a thousand dollars, though if you follow his math it is more along the lines of ten or fifteen dollars for each dollar invested. (Perhaps he meant to say a 1,000 percent return, which is accurate). He claims that he can sell tons of cocaine to a wholesaler at an average of $20,000 a kilo, when in fact if you go to any reputable urban cocaine dealer today, you can buy a kilo of very fine cocaine for about $20,000. He is fond of self-aggrandizing, ludicrous generalizations like “We’re the ones who keep the luxury sector going: 80 percent of the money that lands in the pockets of Versace or Dolce and Gabbana originates with us in one way or another.” In fact, plenty of businesses are far more profitable than cocaine smuggling: the estimated total illicit drug trade in 2005 was $321.6 billion, about 1 percent of the world GDP in the same year. Yes, that’s a great deal of money. But even the most enthusiastic cocaine partisan would admit that cocaine couldn’t capture more than 10 percent of that total business, or $32 billion: a significant sum, certainly, but hardly the foundation of Western luxury.

Clancy Martin is professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine. His recent novel, How to Sell, has much more to say about cocaine.