Four Takes

Tracing lines in the drug trade with books on cartels

In 1982, when I was 21, my suburban girlfriends and I bluffed our way into Studio 54, the infamous Manhattan dance club. Oh my. The buff bartenders were shirtless, the strobe lights and backbeats were merciless, and we spied Rick James, all glamorous, surrounded by the kind of girls you don’t bring home to mother. Then this sight, to us shocking in its openness: clubgoers, hunched low, snorting cocaine for all to see.

Wild guess: No one was parsing the international implications of their actions that night — it’s hard to see in a snowstorm. But that’s what I’ll do now, via books like Bruce Porter’s “Blow: How a Small-Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cartel and Lost It All” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015, first out in 1993). The small town is Weymouth and the boy is George Jung, a.k.a. Boston George, once the American distributor for Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder, who was cozy with Pablo Escobar.


Here’s some context for how Jung, Lehder, and Escobar enabled that flagrant Studio 54 scene. Starting in the 1930s, most narcotics trafficked to the United States were poppy-based and grown in or near Asia (see: opium, heroin), then brought to Marseille, and smuggled to Canada to here. But in the early 1970s, law enforcement stopped this French Connection. Enter coca-based narcotics, grown in South America (see: cocaine and, later, crack). Thus the Medellín cartel (founded in 1972) and the Cali cartel (1977). By 1985, 125 tons were arriving annually from Colombia — and the cocaine business earned enough to rank sixth on the Fortune 500 list, beating out General Electric and US Steel.

Jung had started out flying marijuana bales from Mexico to California, then driving them to Amherst to sell to the five-college population. He got caught, and while doing time met Lehder; the pair decided to partner up upon release. And so Jung rolls out a sort of Drug Dealing for Dummies narrative, full of tips for how to conceal, transport, and distribute bricks of cocaine. It all blows up in his face, of course; car bombings, assassinations, jailings. He last left prison in 2014.


Johnny Depp deftly plays Jung in the 2001 biopic. Netflix’s majorly binge-worthy series “Narcos” plays off Mark Bowden’s “Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw” (Penguin, 2003). And so we follow the reign of terror that locked down a nation of 30 million people, as Escobar’s men gunned down whoever stood in their way, from rival dealers to judges to a presidential candidate: “Pablo was a criminal with no restraints, no boundaries. He could do anything; he would do anything.” Bowden has remarkable access to sources like Colombian President Cèsar Gaviria and Colonel Hugo Martinez, the head of the special police unit that pursued Escobar, and pivotal US drug enforcement agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña.

In 1993, Escobar — the wealthiest criminal in history — was finally killed. The Colombian cartels fell apart and, by the late 1990s, Mexican cartels filled the gap. And so to a devastating primer on today’s drug kingpins, Sylvia Longmire’s “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Longmire shows that the Mexican drug lords are even worse than the Colombian ones. In 2006, there were 34,000 drug war-related deaths in Mexico; by 2013, it was 120,000. Just as the French Connection and the Colombian cartels were dismantled, Longmire wishes her book “will soon be used as a historical reference and not a current affairs tome.” But we’re not there yet.


The fear hits deeper because Mexico is both abettor and abutter: Indeed, drug lords have built smuggling tunnels under the border, and hired straw buyers in the United States to purchase guns that are brought south. Mexicans call this vast, indefatigable thug network El Narco, which inspires my last book today, “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Author Ioan Grillo, a British reporter based in Mexico City, writes with a sort of febrile depth; the drug wars are all too real to him, since five of his sources were murdered before the book came out. I’d give you a cheat sheet of the gangs and players he covers, but it would have the shelf life of an avocado. Allegiances and personnel change fast in the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Gulf, and Los Zetas cartels, the latter based just over the border from Laredo, Texas, and comprising commandos who defected from the Mexican Army.

Grillo’s chronicle of cartel atrocities utterly sickens, but so does the fact that El Narco’s rise is “inextricably linked to [Mexico’s] democratic transition” after progressive leaders defeated the autocratic PRI party in 2000. Bad as the PRI was, it kept gangsters in line. Lines. I find myself thinking of lines. That one line outside Studio 54 all those years ago, the many lines within, the lines that tie drug abuse here to murderousness there, and the lines I write now, about our tragic complicity.


Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.