‘I Am the Market’: Riding the Seas of Cocaine

(Photo Illustration by Scott Dvorin)

Let’s get one thing straight: You are the market. Or maybe your friends are. Or maybe your little sister who is a junior at N.Y.U., or the guests at that dinner party last Thursday, maybe they are, too. You are all the market. We are the market.

The market in question–the global cocaine market–is one of the most robust and lucrative in the world. And its implications are not confined to those who sell, smuggle or use the drug (because maybe your little sister is clean). As the anonymous Narrator of I Am the Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton in Five Easy Lessons (Faber & Faber, 192 pages, $22) points out, “The illegal money produced by weapons and cocaine isn’t used just by narcos. It travels around the world paying for the dirtiest kinds of business. But also the cleanest. The totalitarianism of capital. … What is offered here is not a view of the criminal world but a criminal view of the world.”

The darkly fascinating book is an as-told-to ostensibly authored by the Italian journalist Luca Rastello, but its true protagonist is the anonymous Narrator, an amalgamated character devised from hundreds of hours of interviews with smugglers. The stories and insights are all purportedly authentic. Regardless, this nameless coke-smuggling heavy has a jaundiced eye and a keen wit. I Am the Market is a glass-bottomed boat on what the Narrator calls a “sea of cocaine.”

The subtitle advertises the book as a primer on the international drug trade, but in fact it is a market-analysis-based indictment of the war on drugs by way of brooding memoir. Part Smithian-liberal treatise (if only the government wouldn’t interfere …), part Marxian analysis (the disenfranchised retaking the means of production …), it presents an astute, jaded look at the political economy, in both macro and micro terms, of one of the world’s most valuable substances. “I’ll never tire of repeating it,” the Narrator says. “It’s not the nature of the merchandise that creates the monster, it’s the market. Diabolic substances are a fantasy of romantics and bankers. … It’s men who decide how they make use of the substances and the money. Not the other way around.”

After all, coca is a crop. Nothing more. In fact, it is a very good crop, extremely well suited to the mountains and jungles of South America. “What confers such power on a form of agricultural production that is in other respects comparable to others?” the Narrator asks. “The answer is as simple as it is embarrassing: the artificial difficulty of access to the market at the retail level. In a word, prohibition.” And we know how that worked out.

Laws create criminals, and once a market is criminalized, it makes its own rules. In the pantheon of tragic and imbecilic policies that are long known to be wrongheaded and are nevertheless pursued ad nauseam, the war on drugs ranks up there with trench warfare and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction–though to put it beside these perhaps gives it too much credit, or maybe just misses the point. The war on drugs is not really a war at all. Sure, it is militaristic and deadly, and largely conducted by men with guns, or at least men in charge of men with guns, but it is more like a long, sad love affair. Each side needs the other, to continue the functioning status quo, like George and Martha shouting long into the night.

Take Miami, for instance, “a city built on cocaine, constructed with the money from laundering, kept alive by the banks that processed the narco’s money. … What would become of beautiful Miami, with its palms, everglades, restaurants, and promenade, if it weren’t for our dollars? I’ll tell you: there would be a collapse, a crash on the scale of the one that occurred in Argentina. That wouldn’t exist without us, and believe me, it will never really try to destroy us unless we threaten people’s roles within the system.” Codependent, internecine and ultimately doomed to nothing but its own continuation, the war on drugs is a global death dance. Some get rich; some get high; some die.

To quote the Narrator, after he has relayed a particularly gruesome anecdote: “The moral? You want a moral from this story?”

This is business by other means, and the latter part of the book is spent relaying the technique the Narrator perfected during his years in the intercontinental drug trade. The recommended course of action–his logistics as mystics–is to create what he calls “The Darkness,” which loosely translates to an invisible valence of criminal endeavor just atop the visible one of respectable commerce. Through elaborate sleights of hands–involving shipping manifests, engineered receiving snafus and the reputation of unwitting big-name corporations (the Narrator all but declares he was partial to operating under the cover of Fiat)–the smuggler is a parasite on the colossal infrastructure of international trade.

The means of smuggling cocaine are almost limitless: among shipments of frozen prawns, flowers, asparagus and coffee; inside of a huge industrial crane, tables, flowers, vaginas, stomachs, prostheses, suitcase linings, the tires of cars, the gas tanks of trucks, massive tree trunks, large blocks of granite, stacks of marble tiles, the door panels of an archbishop’s armor-plated car. Nearly anything can be scrapped, ruined, scotched or treated as flotsam in the name of getting the shipment through. It’s all byproduct, whether it’s granite ground to gravel or a cleric gunned down in the afternoon. “A crucial characteristic of this work is the profit margin. For every dollar invested in cocaine, you make a thousand,” reports the Narrator. “You’ll see, one day someone will come up with the idea of using gold to transport cocaine.”

Nearly so. Our own Narrator is smuggling the white stuff in great spools of copper wire when finally he gets caught, sold out by a partner. In the end, his story is told from a prison cell in Italy. He is busted for shipping 120 kilos and gets a 22-year sentence. His story–told by the war-drunk general, surveying the wreckage of the battlefield–comes from inside. Like all war stories, I Am the Market at times strains credulity with its gothic tales of death, depravity and extralegal savoir-faire. Which is only an issue until you realize that after a certain point, it doesn’t matter: In a disorder so global, so lawless and so pervasive, everything has happened. If it hasn’t yet, it will, because the war on drugs isn’t ending anytime soon.

Which brings us back to me, you and everyone we know. All market analysis aside, cocaine is an enthralling substance in its own right. Because of the desirability of its effects for many people, it has a pernicious value. The Narrator, though he has never partaken, is not ignorant of its allure. But he speaks of the drug in narcotic terms only once, when describing a special varietal. He waxes almost rhapsodic about the “slow food” of the drug market, made in small, labor-intensive batches; this coke is more than twice as pure as the average. It is known as the Pearl. “They call it that,” he reports, “because if you put it on the palm of your hand, it takes on an almost oily consistency, with a hint of iridescent color.” All that is solid melts into air, indeed.

editorial@observer.com ‘I Am the Market’: Riding the Seas of Cocaine