The Talking Mule

Alfredo Molano
Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom: Tales of Drugs, Mules, and Gunmen
translated by James Graham
Columbia University Press

The war on drugs is a colossal failure. Even before you saw Traffic, you knew that. As long as rich nations import vices from poorer neighbors, it's always going to be a failure. Sociologist and Colombian exile Alfredo Molano's engrossing collection of interviews with low-level cogs in the Colombian drug pipeline certainly underlines those truisms for the several Americans who may not yet have learned them. These couriers, organizers, and dupes--mostly victims, a few victimizers--tell us of drugs smuggled in antiqued urns, inside coconuts, in false bottoms of suitcases, in frozen catfish, stuffed up and down mules both two- and four-footed. The drug trade suggests an endlessly inventive, almost artisanal will to reimagine the world as nothing but an array of suitcases.

Loyal Soldiers in the Cocaine Kingdom: Tales of Drugs, Mules, and Gunmen finds smugglers making runs by boat, jetliner, small plane, and foot. The soldiers describe a 50-ton press that crams drugs into impossibly dense bales ("It can turn a tungsten diamond into flour," one says). And no matter how many spy planes patrol the skies, no matter how many DEA agents tend drug-sniffing dogs, tote night-vision goggles, or liaise with the Colombian police, most of the drugs get through. You probably knew all that, too.

So this book's real value lies in what you didn't know, which is what these drones make of the circumstances that got them into what aren't exactly "lives of crime"--and very occasionally, what got them out again. A nun, given $2,000 to carry a set of woolen throw rugs to Madrid by her glamorous older sister's boyfriend, seizes the chance to make enough cash to get to Africa and do her real work. Instead, she is set up, offered as a periodic sacrifice to the fantasy of enforcement. Sentenced to the eight years, three months, and one day that are standard for couriers, she keeps the faith, musing that "God chooses you treacherously and sends you the cross with the most unknown emissaries." Another woman, caught importing coconuts with hollow centers, worries mostly about the fate of her daughters while she is in prison: "Life is very jealous and won't let anyone take control of it."

A few of these seven accounts shift the blame. More of the speakers admit openly that drug smuggling was their one chance at something better. ("Maria had decided to make money, a lot of money, in any way she could," Molano writes. "And there's only one way everybody knows.") Told in the drug soldiers' own words, often from Spanish prison, the narratives are surprisingly pastoral--there's no other word for it. ("While the shrimp slept, the tide carried them off," one convict writes.) They are rife with instant adoration between mules and their handlers--"We arrived together in Madrid bewitched from loving each other so much"--and they contain little gunplay.

Though almost all of the stories involve some cruel turns of fate, the major pleasure of this book lies in the sheer zest of its telling. Molano has an ear for magic-realist openings--"Those of us born and raised in Armero lost track of our memories"; "Even after the High Court of Appeals ruled against me, they couldn't convince me of my guilt"--and pungent country wisdom. Even the most successful criminals retained peasant habits: "To count millions of pesetas takes some doing. I had to weigh the bills, because there isn't enough saliva or time to arrive at a total of how much money there is filling up a bathroom."

Without pleading for sympathy, these tales within tales shade in the drug economy's fundamental truth: This is a confoundingly human predicament, and no one is going to win anything until we confront that human element in all of its randomness, generosity, love, and desperation.

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