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Picks and Pans Review: Kings of Cocaine

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by Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen

The end results are an everyday sight: Abandoned buildings in urban ghettos, home to wasted men with empty eyes standing on littered stoops. The unsubtle art of the deal, small white packets shoved out of holes in locked doors or from cracks in the window of a late-model car. Dead bodies belly up in garbage-strewn apartments, abused babies crying in the background. Gold on the fingers, rolls of cash in the pockets, a fully loaded semiautomatic hooked inside the coat. The dress code of drugs. It is as much a part of the American way of life as a summer Sunday afternoon at the ballpark.

Kings of Cocaine is an important book that paints a dismal picture of where that visual and physical ruin begins—the Colombian cities of Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. There, the members of the deadly Medellín cartel run the international cocaine business, reportedly taking in as much as $8 billion a year in profits. This book, by two Miami Herald reporters, also traces a despairing history of what may well be a lost cause—trying to win the drug war. The cartel members started slowly, in the early parts of the 1970s, learning the inner workings of law enforcement and political systems across the Western Hemisphere, systems they would soon grow to exploit. The drug merchants read (Machiavelli’s The Prince was a favorite), they studied production and distribution methods, and they perfected smuggling operations that let their carriers cross borders—mostly U.S. borders—undetected. They opened bank accounts under phony corporate names, bought chunks of property and courted corrupt governments in the Bahamas, Haiti and Panama. They flaunted their drug lord image and killed anyone brazen enough to question their power. When both U.S. and Colombian law enforcement agencies declared war against them, the coke barons laughed. Then they attacked, assassinating high-ranking Colombian government officials and following up with a raid on the Colombian Palace of Justice. The bodies of 12 judges were left in the halls. The extent of the drug merchants’ power was in full evidence when the cartel offered to pay the Colombian national debt, said to be more than $13 billion, in return for certain favors. The request was denied, but the point was made.

Gugliotta and Leen, two Herald investigative reporters, began this book as a series for their paper. Their research paid off in the most frightening book ever written about the drug trade, nonfiction done at an Elmore Leonard pace: “Cano [an antidrug newspaper editor] did not notice the motorcycle parked on the median on his left…. As he waited to make his U-turn, a young man climbed down from the motorcycle’s rear seat, laid what looked like a musical instrument case on the ground and opened it unhurriedly. From it he took a snub-nosed MAC-10 machine pistol. Then he stood up, walked quickly to the driver’s window of the Subaru and pulled the trigger. Cano died instantly.”

A minor inroad was made into the cartel’s base on July 20, 1988. Cartel leader Carlos Lehder, convicted of smuggling, conspiracy and income tax evasion, was sentenced to life without parole—plus 135 years—by U.S. District Judge Howell Melton. Lehder’s trial was seen as a victory by American drug enforcement officials. The cartel members shrugged it off” and went about their business. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)