The story begins in the mid-1980s and ends around 2000 or so, as best one can tell: dates are mostly omitted, perhaps to give a slightly dated narrative a more contemporary feel. Our narrator, without giving too much away, is speaking from the confines of his prison cell—or, at least, from his former prison cell. The best parts of his story are not about the mechanics of smuggling cocaine as he practiced it, but the various characters he encountered in the trade. Here’s how our narrator introduces Don Pablo Escobar, whom he calls “the greatest drug smuggler of all time”: “He was no pussycat, it’s true. But he was a jovial, lively, brilliant guy, and sincerely concerned about his people
. He had that rather molelike, amiable face, the black eyes behind which you sensed an intelligence constantly at work.” If you’ve never known any drug smugglers, you may be surprised to learn that most of the successful ones resemble other successful businessmen you meet: charming, affable, kind, dependent on relationships of trust, preferring long-term profits to immediate rewards. Like our narrator, most successful drug smugglers—indeed, most successful drug dealers—do not themselves use the drugs they sell or transport. “Don’t get high on your own supply” was one of the mantras of Tony Montana’s first mentor in the movie Scarface. But in the real world, the best people in the drug business don’t get high on anyone’s supply.
What really made Escobar great, though, was his role as the first true entrepreneur of the cocaine smuggling trade. From the book-storage industry, he adopted techniques for stashing great sums of cash for long periods of time (a real problem in the drug world, where all serious transactions, no matter how large, are done in cash). He was the first to pack money into tiny, vacuum-sealed packages: in a vacuum pack, we are told, you can get nearly half a million dollars into your pocket. (I have to take the narrator at his word on this one, I am sorry to say.) Escobar was the first smuggler to tunnel under the US-Mexico border, from a building materials business in Ciudad Juárez to another building supply store in El Paso. Before the DEA and the FBI closed the store (someone talked), Escobar moved hundreds or thousands of tons of cocaine into Texas with this simple plan from The Great Escape.
Perhaps the narrator’s most interesting insight is that the old method of smuggling cocaine, which depended on straightforward bribery and a widespread culture of corruption, no longer works. As recently as three decades ago, he claims, ports in the Netherlands were open to anyone with enough cash; now, European and American ports alike are almost closed to illicit activity, because of increasing professionalization, improved scanning technology, and post-9/11 security concerns. “Clancy, terrorism is the worst thing that ever happened to the drug business,” an acquaintance who is a current cocaine smuggler told me. (In South America, however, the smuggler can still accomplish most of his goals with the liberal application of cash, booze, drugs, and prostitutes.) Although his overall system of smuggling still requires bribes at key transfer points, even those bribes must be made in such a way that the individual being bribed can tell himself that he is not really on the take. In this way the cocaine business seems to be following the trajectory of the global economy, where bribery and corruption are still common, but enforcement seems to be modestly improving among most nations (especially, to be fair, in the United States) and internationally the practice seems to be on the decline.
But the fun of the book is not what it teaches us about business ethics, international trade, or even cocaine. If you are a scholar working on the real world economics and social-political dynamics of the international drug trade, this book is not required reading. But if you want a good story told by an unreliable narrator full of fascinating characters, missteps and lucky getaways, priests who smuggle to support their church and hookers with hearts of gold, gambles and gamblers, cons and con artists, and a realistic portrait of how unglamorous, difficult, and most likely short the life of the drug smuggler actually is, then you’ll have a splendid time reading this book. Feel free to take it on the plane.