It is Saturday night in one of Medellin’s more affluent districts. At a local hostel popular with the international back-packing crowd, a group of young middle class foreigners take seat at a table to discuss tonight’s topic – the cocaine party.
Medellin is not a place some young back-packers visit in order to experience new cultural perspectives, writer and journalist Magnus Linton argues in his book “Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make it.”
Instead, the growing pack of foreign 20-somethings gather in the city’s numerous hostels do cocaine – and talk about their previous drug-fueled experiences on the continent, be it LSD-snorkeling in the Pacific Ocean or methamphetamine crazes on remote Brazilian beaches.
Thus, “Pablo Escobar’s hometown”, bizarrely enough, has found its place in this new cycle of international backpacking, where taking coke in the “city of coke” lends even more cultural creed than, say, tango dancing in Buenos Aires or revolutionary tourism in La Habana.
However, in “the new Mecca of Drug Tourism,” the thrill-seeking backpackers are far removed from the violent realities of the less affluent city barrios, and oblivious of the city’s constantly changing criminal landscape.
From the present-day decadence of Medellin’s flash-packer nightlife, Linton’s book launches into an impressive tour-de-force of Colombia’s recent history and argues that the tragic developments following the assassination of presidential-hopeful Luis Carlos Galan in 1989 cannot be discussed outside of the context of the “white gold.”
In the section “Pablo’s Party,” the story of the rise and fall of the Medellin Cartel, is faithfully and neatly retold, as it has been many times before.
More interesting is perhaps Linton’s analysis of how Colombia’s “feudal, archaic and reactionary” countryside has remained largely untouched by the positive benefits of the country’s 1991 constitution through the years. The constitution, often hailed as one of the world’s most progressive legal texts, has been largely useless in the rural areas where it was originally meant the cause great improvements for the marginalized sectors of society.
Linton’s sense of historical narrative is impressive. The author succeeds in at least partially explaining one of the most complicated and sensitive episodes in recent Latin American history: How large parts of landowning elite and drug-running death squads made an unholy alliance to “refound the country,” and how significant sections of the state apparatus have found themselves infiltrated by drug trafficking interests.
Linton argues that the political landscape of present-day Colombia has become “narcotized”. Thus, Colombia’s advanced economy could continue to grow, the tourism numbers keep increasing, however, behind it all lurks an increasingly sophisticated web of organized crime, striving for the same thing as the politicians: order, security, lower homicide rates, safety for tourists and business as usual.
At the same time there is hope, at least for Colombia, the writer claimed. Cocaine is on its way out – and has been on the way out for quite some time. Cocaine is an outdated narcotic, already being replaced by “better, more dangerous” synthetic drugs, thus upheaving the relation between consumption and production countries. Nowadays, North America is the world’s biggest producer of marijuana and Brazil has become the world’s second biggest cocaine consumer. Meanwhile, back in Colombia, drug use is one the rise among “ordinary” people, while the country’s criminal and technical expertise is being used to place the country in the vanguard of the synthetic drug trend.
This represents an upheaval of the traditional dichotomy between rich and poor countries. Globalization has, for example, brought shantytowns to Europe – while Brazil’s newly rich could quite possibly soon surpass their European class brethren in terms of finances. This shift could, according to Linton, lead to good news for Colombia. However, more importantly, it would not solve the problem of drug trafficking or substance abuse from a global perspective.
Linton’s book is meticulously researched, yet despite the author’s painstaking attention to detail and facts, a page-turning sense of dramaturgy is always upheld. Linton is gifted with an uncanny ability to go from the personal to the geopolitical, but consistently refuses to offer easy answers to difficult questions. The book is based on three years of field research in Colombia and is brimming with interesting interviews with drug traffickers, assassins, coca farmers, politicians and more.
“Cocaina: A Book on Those Who make It” is accessible enough to provide an excellent introduction for readers unfamiliar with the Colombia’s highly complex history. Yet the material is also original and thought-provoking, providing an excellent and worthy addition to the growing body of literature on drug legalization and its relation to post-modern ethics.
“Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It” will be released in the United States in May 2014.