Cocaine Republic

To grow coca in Peru, all you have to do is find an unclaimed hillside and cut down the trees. 


The bi-prop to Tocache slipped in and out of clouds, above the dark green of the jungle, and since I had a fever the colors were even more intense than usual. Clouds flowed down steep green moun­tains into the deeper green of the Huallaga River valley. The valley floor is broken up by the winding river and occasional tiny airstrips. The hillsides are speckled with coca plantations, like casual slashes in the thick jungle. “There are lots of Colombians in Tocache,” someone had told me in Tarapoto, further north. In the Huallaga, “Colombians” is shorthand for dog-kicking young men with shiny watches. “You shouldn’t go there,” the Tarapoto man had said. “Colombians will kill you just for looking at them.” Colombians have a very bad reputation in Peru.

The Huallaga River valley produces about 40 per cent of the world’s coca leaves, and Tocache’s in the middle of it. The leaves are refined into paste, which is then exported to Colombia to be turned into nose-worthy cocaine. Coca brings roughly $800 million a year into Peru, which recently passed Bolivia as the main source of raw paste. Coca paste is the country’s largest export. In the Huallaga, people use bi-props as if they were cabs. The airlines don’t have sched­ules; the pilot just lounges around until 10 people show up to fill the plane.

I got to Tocache a few days after a general strike to protest government coca-eradication schemes. “Viva Coca!” was scrawled on the town’s walls. “Coca or Death!” Such strikes are traditional in the Huallaga. There had been one last year to protest an attempt by antidrug police to establish a post in the region. 3000 citizens stoned the outpost, and two cars belonging to investigative police were burned. Months later in Uchiza, 27 miles upriver from Tocache, 250 armed citizens surrounded antidrug police, and forced them to leave town. “There wasn’t much shooting — [the drug police] judged they were not in a winning position,” one source said at the time.

These are examples of organized, pop­ular, even democratic violence. There are other kinds of violence in the Huallaga that are merely organized. The narcotra­ficantes have wars among themselves, notably the three famous battles of Ca­chicoto (40 dead), Monzón (40 dead), and Uchiza (100 dead). In April of this year, 40 miles south of Tocache along the Mar­ginal Highway, some 60 soldiers and po­lice were ambushed by narcotraficantes; six were killed. In March two groups of coca farmers fought each other with sticks, machetes, and revolvers, leaving 12 dead and 20 wounded. “Witnesses to the massacre revealed to police that the confrontation occurred because some farmers received 5 intis [about 30 cents] per kilo of coca leaves while others got 50 intis,” said a news report. For a while there was even “terrorism” in the Hualla­ga. From August 1984 to December 1985 the zone was placed under military con­trol because of the alleged presence of Shining Path guerrillas. Human rights activists say they’ve found several com­mon graves dating from this period, presumably a legacy of the armed forces. If you’re looking for violence, the Hualla­ga’s a good place to go.

I visited Nelson Chavez in his office at Radio Marginal. Nelson is one of those people everyone knows. He is perhaps the only resident of Tocache who could be considered a “booster.” A clean-cut, earnest man around 30, Nelson would listen attentively to ques­tions, then lean forward over the desk, gesturing with open hands, giving an impression of urgent frankness; he clearly felt there were grave misconceptions about Tocache, and he wanted to set them straight. The strike, he said, had not been violent (“What guns? I didn’t see any guns”). And there was no connec­tion between the strikers and narcotrafi­cantes, as was widely alleged.

Radio Marginal had, in a modest, way, supported Tocache’s strikes. It publi­cized the abusive behavior of the drug-­eradication programs. It treated the Front for the Defense of the Interests of the People of Tocache (FEDIP), which ran the strike, as a respectable political group. Radio Marginal had, in an unre­strained moment, encouraged the people of Tocache to help burn those two police cars.

But Nelson didn’t want to talk about militancy, he wanted to talk about devel­opment economics. Because the coca problem is essentially an economic one. People grow it, he says, because they need the money. Most of the farmers are small-timers, emigrants from the Andes who come down to grow coca rather than stay in the mountains and starve; Tocache province’s population has in­creased some 500 per cent since 1980, when the narcotraficantes’ investment program began showing returns. Yes, coca is more profitable than growing po­tatoes. A coca picker makes about $4.70 a day; a day laborer on the coastal planta­tions will get $1.30 a day; a laborer in the mountains would probably get even less, if there were work.

For those who have their own land the difference is still more dramatic: the next most remunerative crop, cocoa, pays about a fifth what coca does. Rice, the only other dimly profitable crop in the region, usually pays even less and re­quires enormous investment. All you have to do for coca is find an unclaimed hillside and cut down the trees.

Coca farmers don’t, however, make a mint. The narcotraficantes and local middlemen control prices, and they’re not about to pay campesinos a lot of money they can just as easily keep for themselves. In any case, Nelson says, the campesinos would do something else if they could. Nobody likes the life. The police are violent, the narcos are violent, the military are violent. All the Colombians, all the prostitution — “All the hotels have prostitutes!” It’s not very wholesome when you’re raising a family.

Given these hardships, Nelson was surprisingly cheerful. He mentioned that Tocache really needs U.S. money for a hydroelectric project. If the town had this, he said, it would be able to develop a “modern economy.” He thought I might exert some influence back in the States toward getting funding. So maybe the cheerfulness was to say: Sure, things are bad here, but there’s a lot of potential. “The ground underneath Tocache is excellent. It could support very large buildings,” Nelson said. “We could expand tourism here. Tocache has excellent access to the jungle. It’s a beautiful setting.”

We drove around and around on Nel­son’s motorbike while night fell. Tocache doesn’t have a single paved road. It does have a half-dozen banks, several stereo dealerships, and countless restaurants, almost none of which have anything but beer on the menu. It also has six telex machines that do good business, mostly to Bolivia and Colombia.

Nelson, young and energetic, a bache­lor, kept shouting “Hi! How’s it going! What’s up!” to people as we putted by. The reaction was usually a slightly suspi­cious, weak smile. We went past an emp­ty lot where there was a dance party for young people. Lights were strung across the humid evening. Boys slicked back their hair with water, girls smoothed their dresses. “Tocache’s a great town,” Nelson said over the sound of his motor­bike, not for the first time.

In Tocache I was staying with a Swiss missionary couple, Julio and Veroni­ca. They were, they felt, being run out of town. A mob had come and jeered outside their house earlier in the year. Julio didn’t visit outlying churches for fear of being killed. Their 20-year effort at moral and cultural promotion had been undone by six years of Colombians, coca paste, and consumer goods. The “old Tocache” they’d loved was gone. So they were heading for East Texas, to buy a mobile home and start over. They subjected me to many conversations about Texas, in exchange for room and board.

The morning after Nelson’s optimistic sightseeing tour, Veronica said she’d had trouble sleeping because of the shooting. “I heard two people walking by, like they were drunk, outside the house. One of them kept saying, ‘Don’t kill me. Don’t kill me.'” I told Veronica over breakfast that I was going to the farm of Abelardo Collantes, head of FEDIP. So she prayed for me. “Please protect our friend when he goes out to the farm.” Like many local people, and all of the Lima press, she believed Collantes was involved with the narcotraficantes.

Collantes and I left Tocache standing in the back of a pickup. There were 15 to 20 others in the truck, and it was a small pickup. All during the drive Collantes —­ taut and wiry, standing in the front of the truck-bed with his hands spread on top of the cab, pulpit-style — gave a lecture on the local agrarian economy. Fertilizer’s too expensive; so are water, feed, machinery, seed. “All the best land is taken by big projects, like Emdepalma [an enormous plantation that produces palm oil for export]. It’s land that was taken away from farmers. The big projects forced farmers into the hills. So of course they plant coca. Nothing else grows there.”

Most of our fellow travelers were farm­ers, and they seemed a little embarrassed by Collantes. He was arguing on their behalf; but he was also stretching the truth. Emdepalma does have the best land. But most of the coca farmers, in­cluding Collantes, came down from the mountains in the ’70s and ’80s. Emde­palma was built in the late ’60s.

But Collantes was right about farmers’ costs. What little capital there is will go into coca. That includes loans made available by the year-old Garcia govern­ment to improve agricultural production. “We request an affirmation that [our borrowers] not use the money for coca cultivation,” the state Agrarian Bank’s local director told me. “But we aren’t too we rigid in this respect, because otherwise we might not be able to give loans.”

We rode several hours by truck then walked another half-mile through the jungle. Collantes’s house was a small platform on stilts with a thatched roof. A little stream went by the clearing, and in the stream were ducks. There were various farm animals wandering around, including a dozen guinea pigs, which are eaten on special occasions (the meat is lean and delicious; the little rodents are fattened on special herbs). Collantes isn’t a merchant prince but life at streamside looked, by Peruvian standards, pretty comfortable. In Peru, if you can eat suffi­ciently and sleep in safety you’re in the privileged class.

We sat down to lunch with Collantes’s wife, daughter, and the coca farmer from next door. “The government and the press have satan-ized this area. They say that the campesinos are like the narco­traficantes. But it isn’t so. People think we’re making a fortune here. But we’re just getting by.” The other farmer mainly nodded while Collantes talked.

After lunch Collantes took me on a tour of his property. He has an outbuild­ing full of farm machinery, mostly Ameri­can, all waiting for spare parts. We went by his fields of rice and maize. We went by a pig shed which he’s quit working on because of the price of feed. Then we walked up and up a jungle mountain. There was almost no path, it was very slippery and steep. Collantes, though not young, showed annoying stamina. Peruvi­an men sometimes get into this competi­tive thing when gringos visit.

“This … is where … they dry the leaves,” he said when we reached the ridge. We stood in a clearing and wheezed for a while. There was coca everywhere, light green leaves fluttering in the sun­light, against the deep green of the jun­gle. Dark clouds were rolling over the highest mountains, further to our left. We walked down into the middle of a coca field where a farmer had built a little open hut.

In the hut Collantes returned to a fa­miliar theme — American morality. Is drug addiction increasing? he wants to know. Doesn’t all the drug abuse in my country bother people? Why do people pay so much for coca? If it’s harmful, why doesn’t the government do something about it?

I tried to give a little socioeconomic profile of drug abuse in America, explain­ing cocaine as an aspect of bourgeois consumerism. I told favorite anecdotes about Betty Ford and Pat Nixon being pharma­ceutical junkies. While carefully avoiding personal details, I tried to explain coke’s considerable allure. In any case, once Collantes heard the word “bourgeois” a few times he thought he’d gotten the drift and began to pay attention to other drugs, namely the plants around him — “The person who owns these doesn’t take very good care of them.”

A cool breeze was blowing through the hut, making it very pleasant. I took photos while Collantes scurried to stay out of them. It was odd to think that New York’s recreational habits were determining the fabric of life in a distant and unknown place. It was also odd to watch Collantes display his poverty, nervously jumping around some dimly perceived standard. He wanted to be the right kind of poor; he didn’t want to be ashamed; but he didn’t want to starve either. He had an idea that people far away think people like him are evil, or at least greedy.

Collantes left me on the road with two drunken drivers in an old Chevrolet. The three of us chatted about life in Tocache. The driver said that the shooting is worst near the center of town, and by the river.

“Why by the river?”

“They take the bodies to get rid of them.”

“And the current is strong enough to carry the bodies?”

“Sure it’s strong enough! It’s the Huallaga!”

Tingo Maria was for several years the capital of Peru’s coca indus­try. Tourist books warned travel­ers not to go there. Tingo Maria is surrounded on three sides by hills; on the fourth side, the Mar­ginal Highway descends into the Huallaga valley. Some of the hills are supposed to represent the body of a woman. In Tingo’s heyday these hills served an im­portant purpose for visiting journalists. They provided a nice segue into adjec­tives about sensuousness, corruption, and moral abandon. But Tingo’s days as the country’s premier coca boomtown have passed, and so the adjectives have been abandoned as well.

Now it’s just “dirty,” or maybe “mean.” Tingo still runs on coca money, but it’s done more subtly than before. In 1982 the Reagan administration put pres­sure on then-president Belaunde to do something about the narcotics business. American advisers came, spent money, and created three programs: PEAH, which was intended to encourage alterna­tive crops and improve local infrastruc­ture, particularly in education and trans­port; CORAH, which would hire engi­neers and field workers to eradicate coca plantations; and UMOPAR, charged with protecting CORAH workers as well as in­vestigating narcotraficantes and demol­ishing clandestine airstrips.

These programs set up shop in Tingo Maria. As a result the hills immediately around the city are not thick with coca like the Huallaga further north. So the farmers who once worked the Tingo hills have either left or become peddlers or beggars or thieves. Tingo is the only Hua­llaga town with a large number of beggars.

Outside of greater Tingo Maria, how­ever, there’s not much evidence of the programs’ success. Airstrips are de­stroyed by UMOPAR then rebuilt in days; CORAH uproots the occasional plantation, but the amount of land under coca continues to increase. PEAH has had more lasting effect — it has contribut­ed to public works projects and educating local administrators — but the program is now moribund for lack of funds and gen­eral public antipathy within the coca zone.

CORAH’s headquarters are in an un­marked white building on a side street and everyone in Tingo knows exactly how to get there. There’s a high protective wall around the compound. Behind the wall are men in civilian clothes with auto­matic weapons, and a staff of engineers and secretaries. I went to talk with two of the head engineers about Tocache’s strike. The government had said CORAH would be suspended while being “reeval­uated.” The Tocache Defense Front had taken this as their big victory. Collantes felt the strike had forced a re-think of eradication policies generally. The press in Lima took this idea and blew it up to mean there wouldn’t be any more plant-­eradication efforts. So I wanted to know what CORAH thought about that.

The two engineers weren’t eager to talk. When we met, in their conference room at dusk, they said I couldn’t use their names. As we talked it got darker in the room, and they were whispering. All of which seemed rather melodramatic except that the engineers were sincerely terrified. “Narcotics traffic has much in­fluence, but under the table. They have a lot of power, and a lot of money.” In November 1984, 19 engineers and work­ers from CORAH were murdered in their sleep.

As far as the engineers are concerned the Tocache strike was inconclusive. “We are going to continue. Everything’s pre­pared. And the eradication program will continue.” There’s apparently no com­munication between the farmers and the people pulling up their plants. “You can’t talk to those people.” I said I’d been in Tocache and they surprised me by asking what it was like. They’d never been.

Later, in Lima, I went to the U.S. em­bassy. Workmen were repairing the fa­cade, which had been bombed recently, causing the ambassador to flee (the state department gives Lima a risk-rating just below Beirut’s). The coca eradication is all paid for by the U.S.; I wanted to inter­view the man in charge. But when the interview finally took place I was told it was all Deep Background. This means that you can’t name anything more spe­cific than “informed sources.”

In Lima, informed sources say coca­-eradication efforts won’t get another pen­ny from the U.S., beyond current funding levels. They say “the Peruvian govern­ment is doing a very fine job,” but there just isn’t the money to expand coca­-eradication efforts. It’s not a priority for the Reagan administration, struggling as it is with budget cuts. Informed sources affirmed that Peru has surpassed Bolivia as a source of coca, despite Bolivia’s be­ing free of large-scale eradication pro­grams. (This was before the sending of American troops to Bolivia, that strange bit of war-on-crack propaganda.) In­formed sources sounded a note of cheer­ful pessimism. “It’s hard to compete with coca!” they said. “The Peruvian govern­ment doesn’t have marketable alterna­tives. And the U.S. doesn’t have enough money to replace the market.” Informed sources and I had a little chuckle imagin­ing the U.S. spending $800 million a year on Peru.

So where, then, does the coca mon­ey go? Eight hundred million dollars is not spare change; Pe­ru’s total legal exports were less than $3 billion in 1985. The con­sensus opinion is that two-thirds of the coca dollars enter the banking sys­tem. All coca business is in U.S. dollars, either deposited directly by narcotrafi­cantes (farmers are generally paid in intis) or laundered through businesses. The remaining dollars stay in the informal currency market, either in Peru or, more likely, abroad.

During the Belaunde administration (1980-85), coca dollars, being the main source of foreign exchange, were the key to a process called “dollarization.” Be­launde’s U.S.-trained economic team be­lieved it was okay — often desirable — for a third world country regularly to deval­ue its currency. The devaluations are aimed at discouraging domestic demand, encouraging exports, and moving the giv­en currency to its rightful place vis-a-vis the international market. So Belaunde devalued Peru’s currency constantly.

This made dollar speculation extreme­ly popular. Both in terms of Peru’s cur­rency and internationally, given the strength of the dollar against other cur­rencies in those days, dollars were a great investment. All you had to do was hold them in your hand and their value increased.

The trick was to get them in your hand. And the best place to find them was the Huallaga. Peruvian banks, in­cluding several that were state-owned, opened branches in undistinguished towns like Tocache and Uchiza. Under Belaunde there was virtually no regulation of currency trading. Banks didn’t have to say how much they were changing, and deposits often didn’t have to report where the dollars came from.

The result was that anyone with dollars made a lot of money as the rest of Peru continued to suffer a horrible de­pression. It was a remarkably transparent way of shifting wealth from the poor to the rich. From 1980 to 1983 average real household income dropped by 24 per cent. At the same time, banks returned excellent profits. The Banco de Credito, for example, holds about a quarter of the foreign exchange in Peru’s banking system (and has its own light planes to make the Lima-Huallaga run). In 1984 it returned a profit of 24 per cent on capital.

The Garcia government, which took office in July of last year, had tried to change this coca-based “dollarization” of the economy. It has frozen almost all dollar assets in the banks, raised the per­centage of dollar assets that banks must keep in the Central Reserve, and en­forced a system of fixed exchange rates (after devaluing the inti 12 per cent right after corning into office). Banks are also required now to report daily on how much foreign currency they exchange.

Based on interviews with bankers, smugglers, and currency speculators in the Huallaga and Lima, demand for dollars has decreased greatly. And when the banks do have dollars, they’ll often just put them in the Central Reserve, since the government pays excellent interest as part of its effort to remove dollars from the market. The government has, in a sense, become a super-speculator, hoard­ing dollars that originated to a great ex­tent in the coca zone. The disastrous syndrome of devaluation and inflation has been broken, at least temporarily.

But the underlying causes of the struggle between currencies remain, namely the desire of the Peruvian rich, and ulti­mately of capitalists in the developed countries, to increase the value of their capital without investing in production.

Part of the government’s idea in freez­ing the dollar was that, deprived of their currency speculation scam, Peru’s capitalists would have to start investing in productive enterprise. But private investment has not shown substantial increase over the last year. Alejandro Toledo, an economist on the boards of three major Peruvian banks, said, “There’s no lack of capital. It’s just that there aren’t any investments that the banks have faith in.” If there’s no private investment there’s not likely to be much growth (public investment has decreased under the new administration). And if there isn’t much growth, then the government will eventually need to devalue its currency.

When the devaluations come, dollars will again be a favorite investment. For the Peruvian poor, this mean a further distribution of wealth upward. Relations between the narcotraficantes and the Lima bourgeoisie will grow more intimate. But in the Huallaga things wouldn’t change all that much. The de­mand for coca is more reliable than the demand for dollars.

I went to visit the gringo narcotraficantes with my friend Joseph, a trade unionist. In Lurigancho, Lima’s main high-security prison, the gringos have their own building. They govern it themselves. There are almost no guards; the prisoners even run their own little restaurants on the main fioor.

Joseph had a friend inside named Rob­ert. Robert had been imprisoned when he was 17. He was, Joseph had warned me, “very degenerated — both physically and morally.” When we were a few yards from the building entrance there was a little high-pitched yelp from inside. We en­tered and Robert was embracing Joseph, his hands shaking and tears in his eyes. Joseph is a big man (he used to work in a factory, killing chickens by snapping their necks), which made Robert look very fragile. When we finally sat down Robert was breathing heavily. He said he’d been having problems with asthma. Several people told me later that he’d been smoking three or four coca paste joints a day since he went in six years ago. He had sores on his legs and face. His lips were wounds.

Joseph and Robert spoke in French for a while — they’re both French Canadi­an — then switched to Spanish for my benefit. Joseph suggested we go to the main meeting area and I could talk to some of the Americans there. We entered a large, appropriately filthy and horrible room. The second and third floors each had balconies from which one could look down to the main floor. The cells were set back from these balconies. Most of the cell doors were open, everyone moved around freely. There were no guards that I could see. Robert shouted out “Manny!” A short, jumpy-looking man got up from a nearby table and walked over to us. There were introductions.

Manny grew up in the Mission district of San Francisco. I grew up in Oakland, so we had a lot to talk about. We had the same favorite bar in San Francisco — ­Gino and Carlo. Manny’d done a lot of different jobs back home — accountant, hairdresser, selling men’s clothing, selling heirlooms. He’d had a 1938 Rolls-Royce Phantom III that he rented out as a lim­ousine, with him driving. He did nine months in a San Francisco city jail for seven kilos of marijuana. Then he worked in cocaine smuggling, until around dawn on November 23, 1982, when police wait­ed for him at the Lima airport on a tip he had cocaine. Sure enough, his shoe in­soles were full of white powder, 671 grams according to court testimony. Manny was supposed to get 12 grand for being the mule once he got back to SF. A Peruvian court gave him 10 years, taking into account he was a first offender.

“I’d been in [the narcotics business] for six or seven years. I think it was about time to go down. I’m kinda glad really.”

Manny has seen the worst of the Peru­vian prison system. At first they put him in Sexto. “If these guys had seen Sexto, they’d think this is a country club. This is a fucking joke,” Manny said. A few years ago, hostages were taken in Sexto. Some of them were eventually tortured and burned. I asked Manny if he’d participat­ed in the takeover and he said, “Yes, you couldn’t help it. There weren’t any spectators. Everyone had to participate.” Manny also took notes on the uprising, which he says he’s hidden away. “That was one helluva show. I’d like to write it up someday.”

Most of Sexto’s prisoners were moved to Lurigancho. There, partly in response to the Sexto murders, the prisoners were allowed to “govern themselves.” Manny, being an American and moved by the Yankee entrepreneurial spirit, set about organizing the building’s financial sector.

“It used to be chaos. Everyone had to do their own enforcement.” Manny set himself up as a bookkeeper/financier. If someone had something to sell or hock, he’d find a buyer. If someone needed to borrow, Manny would find a lender. He kept track of all the deals in account ledgers. The main forms of exchange were joints of cocaine paste and cash. We went to Manny’s room and he showed me the books. “It’s all in there,” he said. And it was: dates, how many joints owed, rates of interest. Manny takes care of the enforcement, but he says there isn’t much need for it now. If people welsh they know they won’t get credit again. Since most of the borrowers are feeding coke habits, they’re careful not to lose their credit rating. “It’s something to do. I’m very busy around here.”

Two other Americans came in. Like Manny, they were small-timers, young; they had their own horror tales about the Peruvian justice system. One had gone on hunger strike to protest. “We used to have to carry him around. He really showed those motherfuckers.” He looked like hell.

There were copies of The Washington Post “International Edition” lying around. “It makes great rolling papers. Everyone uses it here.” No one was in a hurry to talk about anything and I gath­ered life moves slowly in Lurigancho. The Americans make colorful rugs to pass time. Manny showed me his rug-in-progress, and a photo of the painting it was based on, Colourful World by Karel Ap­pel. “Americans are different,” Manny said. “We’re the only ones who do this kind of stuff  here.”

I had to leave. Manny and I walked to the door, picking up Robert and Joseph along the way. Manny said, “It’s been good. I needed this. I needed this hard­-knocks schooling. This education in values. You leave here, you’re one sharp son of a bitch. No one will get over on you.” At the door Robert and Joseph embraced again. Manny gave me a copy of his indictment and asked me to call his dad in San Francisco, which I later did. “Thanks a lot for coming,” he said. “It really makes a prisoner’s day.”

Weeks later I talked to Joseph and he said Robert had gotten out. He was living in some kind of religious home; the bargain was that if he kicked the coca paste they’d lodge and feed him. According to Joseph, Robert had stayed clean for a week or two, but lately he’d been making long, poorly explained trips into Lima. His keepers didn’t like being lied to. They were think­ing of throwing him out.

How many months or years could he survive on the streets of Lima? How long would he want to survive? In Lurigancho Manny had said, “Robert hasn’t seen the light yet.” This came after a discussion of how Manny had seen the light. The “light” had to do with discipline, and “hard knocks.” Manny’d told me a story about Sexto, how the guards used to line up in two rows, with clubs, and make prisoners run the gauntlet, said he had a lump on his shoulder from those days and I could touch it. It was the size of a large walnut. I didn’t see how that was physically possible. Was it all scar tissue? Or a protruding bone?

The “light” apparently signified that Manny had been a prisoner long enough to become a citizen. This is not my idea of citizenship. But then, I don’t have a walnut-sized lump on my left shoulder, and I haven’t seen my friends killed in front of me, or run between rows of swinging clubs. Still, the idea that one is either a prisoner/citizen or a dangerous rebel seemed to lack moral subtlety.

Then I returned home and found that our highest public officials, and a proportion of the citizenry, have arrived at the same moral schema that Manny achieved only after four years in Peruvian prisons (and eight years of daily freebasing, by his own account). Politicians are vying for the chance to undergo drug-testing. The Reagan administration wants employers to screen for drugs before hiring, and hopes to institute tests for federal workers. The president points to rock and roll as a key cause of abuse. Some of his advisers urge the death penalty for dealers. Troops are sent to Bolivia to do symbolic, and comically inept, battle with the scourge. Which doesn’t make me agree with Manny, though I wondered how, from a Peruvian prison cell, he’d been able to anticipate the American mindset so exactly. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2020