Coked Up

A review of Luca Rastello's I Am the Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five Easy Lessons
April 8, 2011

I Am the Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five Easy Lessons by Luca Rastello, translated by Jonathan Hunt | Faber & Faber | 178 pages, $22

The second time I smuggled cocaine I was fifteen years old. I purchased a large orange wax candle, the coffee-can shaped, six-wick kind with a gold crepe bow around it, at the candle store in the Six Flags mall in Arlington, Texas. I also bought a smaller candle that matched the color. Then I used a paring knife to carve out the inside of the candle and inserted the ounce of cocaine I had purchased from a blind man named Frankie on a farm on the outskirts of Fort Worth. I paid $1,000 for the ounce, which I planned to cut into two ounces with a laxative powder Frankie told me you could buy at any drug store. There are about twenty-eight grams in an ounce and I would be selling the cocaine for $100 a gram—the going price in Calgary, Alberta, at the time, if you could get your hands on the stuff—so from my $1,000 investment, plus my $400 plane ticket, I would net about $4,200 on the deal, an excellent return if you aren’t thinking about the risks. After my tightly plastic-wrapped cocaine was secured in the candle, I added more plastic to protect it, and then covered the hole with drippings from the smaller candle and the melted candle shavings. Unfortunately, when you melt candle wax it re-cools a different shade. But I had the large round price sticker on the bottom, and though it did not cover the discoloration it helped distract the eye. When the Canadian customs officer removed the candle from my bag—I am surprised I didn’t pass out cold; the fearlessness of the teenager, I suppose—I explained that it was a birthday gift for my big sister. He raised one eyebrow as though questioning my taste in gifts, and put it back in the bag.

It turns out that the cleverest techniques of the world’s largest cocaine smugglers are no more sophisticated, in kind, than a teenage boy’s. In Luca Rastello’s I Am The Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five Easy Lessons, here’s the big secret:

Take eight [granite or marble] tiles and cut a square hole in the middle of each one. Next, make a pile of ten tiles like this: pile the eight tiles with holes in the middle on top of each other, and put an uncut tile at the top and bottom of each pile. Since each tile is 1 centimeter thick, there is a cavity measuring 20 centimeters by 20 centimeters by 8 centimeters, just the right size for your bag of cocaine. The ten tiles form one packet, which you’re going to put into a crate. After you’ve cut the eight tiles, you put a bag of cocaine into the cavity, glue the pile of ten tiles together (that’s important), wrap them up, and put the packet in the middle of the crate, surrounded by packets of uncut tiles. You check that the hot crates weigh exactly the same as the clean crates. And with this trick you get eighty kilos of stuff into one container. Twenty-five containers, and you have your two tons.

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.

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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.

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.