A new book by a veteran reporter provides a comprehensive picture of Colombia’s modern-day cocaine trafficking networks and their devastating impact on the society that surrounds them.
In Kilo: Life and Death Inside the Secret World of the Cocaine Cartels, British-American journalist Toby Muse provides an account of Colombia’s security woes that offers both breadth and depth. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, he takes readers from the Andean coca fields and drug labs to the go-fast boats that ply their trade in South America’s coastal waters, lingering over at least a dozen locales in between.
A chief virtue of this book — and what distinguishes it from countless other surveys of the drug trade — is its structure. Muse reports his way up the Colombian cocaine supply chain link by link, essentially tracking the life cycle of the mythical kilo of the title. This approach gives him the flexibility to cast a wide net, but it endows the book with the narrative momentum that is often lacking from such books. Presented within this framework, Muse’s reportage becomes easier for the reader to consume and his conclusions easier to retain.
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Muse provides readers with an intimate picture of the lives of the people who inhabit the cocaine trade, from the dirt-poor “cocaleros,” or “coca growers,” to an influential trans-Atlantic trafficker based in Medellín. While most of his subjects receive a few pages before he moves on to the next link in the chain, the book lingers on a handful.
Muse was granted astonishing access to a Medellín hitman and his powerful boss, but some of the most affecting vignettes cover less obvious actors—the young Venezuelan prostitute who services coca farmers on market days, or a barely literate crew member of a cocaine-laden semisubmersible.
As the inclusion of such figures suggests, Muse has a talent for finding compelling material and in unexpected places. One of the most enjoyable and original sections narrates life in a retirement home for drug-sniffing dogs (they age out of the work at about six years). His account of a stay in La Gabarra, a market town for cocaleros in Catatumbo, reads like a dystopian reworking of Wild West tales set in Dodge City or Tombstone. Similar examples litter the pages of Kilo.
Muse and his interlocutors detail the many repercussions that cocaine’s stratospheric profit margins have had on Colombia. One of the most consequential was, of course, its extension of a financial lifeline to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and other rebels for which the end of the Cold War should have spelled doom.
The book also contains ample analysis of the economic distortions that cocaine generates. Previously viable industries have withered on the vine, and workers from any number of industries have taken to chasing easy money. But in Muse’s telling, probably the most damaging impact is social: The chaos wrought by cocaine traffickers has led to a country largely inured to spectacular violence and premature death.
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While the book spends most of its time in the weeds of the cocaine trade, Muse also pulls back and provides extensive reflections on two major recent evolutions: the FARC peace process and Venezuela’s economic and political collapse. Each development has added a jolt of instability to Colombian security. In the case of the FARC, the peace itself created a power vacuum in large swaths of the country, while government’s missteps in its implementation have compounded the problem.
As far as Venezuela’s descent into chaos, its principal effect on Colombia is the cohort of desperately poor citizens streaming across the latter nation’s borders who are willing to accept any job that pays a stable wage, from sex work to murder. Economic exiles from Venezuela dominate the book’s early pages, and Muse describes the challenges they face with unusual perceptiveness.
While the subject matter is life or death, Muse nonetheless displays a keen eye for the comic and the absurd. His complaints about Colombian resentment of its defeat to England in the 2018 World Cup provides an amusing respite from the pessimistic subject matter, as does his account of his stoned driver’s shouting matches with an estranged girlfriend. Some of these oddities — for instance, one small village’s tradition of weekly gatherings around the shopkeeper’s generator-powered television to watch soap operas—will likely float around a reader’s mind long after the book is completed.
Muse’s prose is conversational, disarming, and effective. “They’re big on kidnapping and blowing up oil pipelines,” he says of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) distinguishing characteristics. Later, he describes incarcerated kingpin Daniel Barrera as having “the look of a man who would burp in your mother’s face.” He indulges in the periodic literary flourish that may not be to every reader’s taste, but these passages — such as an extended riff on the contradictions that comprise life in Medellín — contain genuine insight.