The Dinner Party, Pablo Escobar and Cocaine

When people were doing lines in the 70s, cocaine barons were torturing and executing men, women and children to deliver the drugs. Has anything changed?
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When people were doing lines in the 70s, cocaine barons were torturing and executing men, women and children to deliver the drugs. Has anything changed?

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‘To snort cocaine is to make a statement,’ wrote Robert Sabbag in his hip tale of the cocaine trade. ‘It is like flying to Paris for breakfast.’ Cocaine’s popularity among wealthy, ‘responsible’ people seemed to confirm its harmlessness and also provided positive advertisement. For those addicted to glamour, cocaine was as indispensable as a Hermès bag or Bulgari watch. It was the first designer drug, its expense rendering it a symbol of success. One New York ad agency was rumoured to give free samples. In February 1979, five brokers were arrested for trading the drug on the floor of the Chicago Options Exchange.

In Hollywood, producers added a hefty sum for cocaine to their budgets for blockbuster films, one editor explaining that ‘people won’t work without their wake-up calls’. Drug paraphernalia – nicely tooled mirrors and gold razor blades – reinforced the image of respectable rebellion. ‘It became an accepted product,’ Jung felt. ‘If you were well to do and you were a jet-setter, it was okay to snort cocaine . . . everybody was snorting cocaine, everybody was laughing and having a good time and snorting cocaine.’

At Studio 54, celebrities danced under a neon man in the moon snorting coke from a spoon. In the toilets, there were lines to do lines. By the end of the decade, it was estimated that 2 million Americans were spending $20 billion annually for 66,000 pounds of cocaine. The law provided little obstacle. ‘There’s a mindset in this country that it’s okay for upper-class white America to do drugs,’ Jung feels. ‘Nobody ever stood up. Nobody ever said no.’ Jung joined the gravy train, switching from pot to cocaine, which was easier to handle. ‘It was unbelievable. To sell 50 or 100 kilos in a matter of a day was nothing.’ The only problem was processing all that cash. ‘It took hours upon hours and hours to count it and recount it and go over it and over it again. It was tedious as hell.’

The cocaine came mainly from Colombia, where a few cartels, centred on Cali and Medellín, grew more powerful than the government itself. The dominant drug baron was Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín cartel, and arguably the most successful criminal in history. At its peak, his operation ran five flights loaded with cocaine into the US every day. Cocaine was an industry; the coca would come from producers in Peru or Bolivia and then get processed in huge factories hidden in the Colombian jungle. ‘We conducted business, cocaine business,’ Carlos Toro, essentially a PR agent for the Medellín cartel, reflects.

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‘Just like General Motors or IBM, we get orders that we have to fulfill . . . Under the contract with the cartel, we . . . were to move the cocaine at a certain frequency out of the country . . . We were the clearinghouse of the cocaine.’ The business was impressively efficient, but not economically astute. Like the greedy monsters they were, cocaine barons mistakenly assumed that they could increase profits by increasing supply. The law of diminishing returns went unnoticed until it was too late. Eventually, the cartels found they had to sell an ever-greater amount simply to make the same income.

‘Escobar basically had a Neanderthal ideology,’ Jung concluded. ‘He didn’t understand supply and demand . . . if you flood the country with cocaine the price is going to go down and also it’s going to expose everyone and bring in more people at greater threat of being arrested or caught.’ Legal or moral issues were smothered under a blanket of money. ‘I didn’t pay a lot of attention to [the legality],’ Juan Ochoa, an Escobar associate, admits. ‘At that time, no one said anything about anything. It was so easy.’ Drug barons could not believe their good fortune in tapping into wealthy Americans’ insatiable appetite for cocaine. ‘I’ve never understood what they liked in that substance,’ Ochoa admits, ‘because I don’t think it has any positive effects . . . I think it’s a really stupid thing.’

Dealers derived perverse pleasure from messing with the minds of the American people and destabilizing their economy. For Carlos Lehder, of the Medellín cartel, the drug became an expression of his hatred of Americans. ‘Carlos . . . wanted to flood the country with cocaine and destroy the political and moral structure of the United States,’ Jung felt. ‘As he stated, cocaine was the atomic bomb and he was going to drop it on America.’ Drug barons were addicted to the life, if not the drug.

Lehder bought an island called Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas, to serve as a distribution centre for shipping cocaine into the United States. It was a sybarite’s paradise. Toro recalls ‘being picked up in a Land Rover with the top down and naked women driving to come and welcome me from my airplane. It was a Sodom and Gomorrah . . . Everybody was naked. You would find people in one corner having sex, people sleeping on the floor, plenty of food. I mean, you’re talking about sin town . . . It’s wonderful. Drugs, sex, there’s no police. You own it, you made the rules, and it was just . . . fun.’ Danger was also addictive. ‘I have seen many people . . . go back to the drug business, not because of the money, but because of the excitement . . . knowing that somebody could . . . catch you – that you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison or . . . be killed,’ Fernando Arenas confessed. ‘We are . . . absolutely nutcases.’10 Money inevitably inspired violence. ‘Any marijuana transaction I ever did with anyone, there were never any guns,’ Jung maintains. ‘It was simply . . . a handshake business and a trust factor.’

With cocaine, however, the stakes were far too high. ‘Suddenly everybody was carrying guns.’ Escobar’s hitmen would travel on motorbikes through the crowded streets of Medellín and Bogotá, seeking out enemies and gunning them down in broad daylight. ‘The bloodshed . . . was not created by the cocaine itself,’ Toro argued. ‘The bloodshed and the violence and the assassinations and the . . . dead bodies and all these things . . . were a product of our doing . . . It was the law enforcement of collecting monies.’

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Oscar Toro, an industry minion who fell foul of his bosses, returned home to find his five year- old son hanging from the rafters in his basement. His ten-year old daughter and the family babysitter were later found brutally murdered in an abandoned building nearby. Escobar liked to eliminate an enemy’s entire family, so as to underline his absolute power and strike fear into those tempted to defy him. Victims were sometimes tortured, partly to extract valuable information, but often simply to prolong their suffering. Steven Murphy, a DEA special agent in Medellín, recalls listening to an intercepted conversation between Pablo Escobar and his wife. ‘In the background, while he was talking to his wife about family matters and things like that . . . screaming could be heard . . . Pablo put his hand over the receiver and turned around and asked whoever was committing this torture to please keep the guy quiet, that he was trying to talk to his family.’

On one occasion, while Jung was enjoying a drink with Escobar at his ranch, a Chevy Blazer pulled up, two burly men got out and an individual was dragged from the back. ‘[Pablo] simply said “Excuse me”. He walked over and executed the man and then he came back to the table. He simply looked at me and he said, “He betrayed me.” . . . then he asked me what I’d like for dinner.’ Among the barons, Escobar stood out because of the ferocity and breadth of his ambition. For him, cocaine was not simply a way to get rich. A freelance politician, he wanted to use the immense power of the business to bend the government to his will. This meant carefully cultivating a Robin Hood image. Schools, playgrounds and sports facilities were built, and a food distribution programme was established. Poor people loved him for his benificence, calling him El Patrón, and supporting him unquestioningly. Those immune to his largesse were brought round through intimidation.

Politicians who refused bribes were offered a stark choice: ‘I’m going to kill you, so what do you prefer? You prefer money or you prefer to be killed?’ Those who summoned the courage to defy him did not live long. ‘You couldn’t confront Pablo Escobar, because you knew what would happen: you would die,’ Jorge Ochoa recalled. ‘[He] . . . did whatever he wanted. He didn’t consult with anyone . . . He intimidated everyone. It wasn’t just us, but the rest of Colombia and all of the United States . . . He thought that whatever he wanted is the way it should be done, and he didn’t ask anyone an opinion. He didn’t take anyone into account.’

This is an extract from The Seventies Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic Look At A Violent Decade by Gerard DeGroot (Macmillan).