Four Vignettes With Cocaine

By Luis Antonio Montaña

A few months ago, I had the good fortune to attend an extraordinary exhibition of pre-Columbian gold work of the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. An image from one of the show’s advertisement posters had caught my eye in the subway. It was a magnificent gold pendant in the shape of a man-jaguar with a bifurcated tail, a stunning jewel that, despite its modernist undertones, belongs to the ancient indigenous peoples of Colombia, my country of origin.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t attend the exhibit spurred by the hope of seeing a Poporo close up. And so, it happened. Among the emerald, jade, platinum and gold pieces of Mesoamerican, Andean, and Caribbean peoples, I found a Colombian Poporo, or better said, a Calima-Yotoxo Poporo. Please allow me to describe its shape first and explain its function later. This very peculiar Poporo has the size and appearance of a little golden frog made of small gold panels. It has fangs like a cat, and a platinum ring hanging from its nose. It also has claws, a tail, and an orifice on its back from where a thin metal pick sticks out. This is what appeared on its label: Lime container in the shape of a jaguar. This lime container (poporo) is made of many pieces of metal sheet crimped or joined by wire loops. The thin spoon with a finial, inserted between the feline’s shoulder blades, would have been used to retrieve powdered lime.

A Poporo then, is a container used to carry lime. Now, shrewd readers might ask themselves: why did the Calima people need to carry around lime powder, and why did they need to do so in such splendid style? The answer to this question could be found in the label of an object contiguous to our Poporo, a very thin cocktail gold stick 8 inches long, carved in the shape of a tiny little man: Lime powder made from seashells, is a catalyst for the alkaloid contained in the coca leaf, which produces a mild psychoactive effect when chewed, a ritual practice in the Andes. This lime dipper (palillo) was used to extract the powder from its container.

In October of 1914 the New York Times published a story which today, over a hundred years later, is still a landmark in the history of the war against drugs. This is its headline: NEGRO COCAINE “FIENDS” ARE A NEW SOUTHERN MENACE. The subtitle reads: “Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Blacks Because They Have Taken to “Sniffing” Since Deprived of Whisky by Prohibition.” The article starts by talking about the news coming from Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, where stories of murders perpetrated by cocaine consumers are becoming more frequent and increasingly alarming.

The author tells the story of police chief Lyerly of Asheville North Carolina, who had to face the rage of one of these alienated black men, who according to the reporter was “running amok.” Chief of police Lyerly received the news that a negro, until then known for his meek disposition, had threatened to stab a store clerk amid a cocaine frenzy, right after savagely beating up the members of his own house. When the sheriff tried to arrest him, the cocaine fiend drew a knife and advanced on Lyerly, slashing him gravely in the shoulder. Finding himself in a life or death situation, Sheriff Lyerly had no other choice but to shoot his opponent. To his surprise, one shot to the chest was not enough to stop the cocaine beast; a second one in the belly was necessary. The author informs us that after the second impact, chief Lyerly ran out of bullets, so he had to finish the negro with his club.

The rest of the article is a severe admonition of the dangers of negroes on cocaine. Authorities believe that blacks consume the drug as a substitute for alcohol, and that it is not clear where they obtain it. As a corollary the author estimates that the crucial difference between the whisky and cocaine craze, is that cocaine doesn’t just turn negros stronger and more aggressive, but renders them impervious to bullets and makes them better marksmen.

In northeastern Colombia, in the tropical Andes, runs a mighty river with numerous tributaries, called Catatumbo. The people that inhabit its river planes are among the poorest and most disenfranchised of all Colombia, which is a remarkable feat in a country of prolific iniquities. The only source of subsistence that the peasants of the region have found is the coca tree, a lustrous and stubborn bush that, despite prohibition, has grown there for more than 20 years.

Today, there are 28 thousand hectares of coca being grown in Catatumbo (a hectare is the size of a rugby field). Guerrillas, narcos, paramilitaries and the Colombian army wage a war over the control of the crop and its exportation routes. (And as if this wasn’t enough, for the past year, Mexican cartels have entered this violent fray)

Albeiro Celis is a farmer who lives in a small village called Mesitas near the town of Tibú. Mesitas is not much more than a strip of houses in a valley only accessible by motorcycle through a bridle path. Albeiro’s farm consists of a ruinous cabin with a fence, a kitchen made out of concrete, four hammocks and a chicken coop. On one side of his lot stands the laboratory, meaning the shack where ground coca leaves are processed to obtain coca paste.

The narcos buy the coca paste from humble farmers like Albeiro, while guerrillas charge them a protection tax, which amounts to an extortion for these small growers. With the 2 hectares of coca that Albeiro owns he is barely able to survive; he feeds his family, pays the two nephews that help him in the lab, and buys the necessary provisions for making coca paste, i.e., lime, gasoline, sulfuric acid and caustic soda, among others.

Six months ago, Albeiro received a disquieting visit. Four men armed with pistols and machetes arrived on his finca before noon. The first thing they told him was not to be worried about his kids, a 13-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy. They were doing fine and safe in school, according to the men, and they would continue to do so as long as he played ball and worked with them. Then they explained that from now on they would be the ones buying coca paste from him, since don Chucho, his previous buyer, had sold them the business. Albeiro told them that was fine with him, and that he didn’t care who bought his product as long as there weren’t any problems and bills were payed on time. As a sign of good faith the men gave Albeiro 80 dollars and agreed to visit him in a month to pick up the produce: 50 pounds of cocaine base paste.

The following week there were rumors around town about the new captain of the 13th brigade of the army in the nearby city of Cúcuta, who whether acting rogue or following orders, had his mind set on eradicating all the coca he could find in Mesitas. That Sunday at dawn 25 soldiers and a Sargent arrived to Albeiro’s lot, uprooted all the plants and burned the whole 2 hectares of coca leaf. Everything Albeiro had in the world was lost just like that. In order not to go to jail Albeiro gave the Sargent 40 dollars, virtually the last of his money. Hours later, he packed his bags, his wife took the kids and they fled to the city.

Last summer I did cocaine twice. It could have been more, but the summer flies by and I had to work all weekends non-stop. One Friday at the end of August my friend Graham (one of my Spanish students) invited me to his friend’s apartment in Greenpoint. The apartment was roomy and had an ample terrace on the rooftop where one could enjoy the balmy night and the starry sky. We bought beers, then Graham introduced me to Sam, the apartment’s owner, and we sat down in the terrace to talk. They mentioned that Sam knew a drug dealer that traded with a superior-quality cocaine, and that if I was interested, we could pitch in and buy a gram for the night. I thought it a splendid idea.

When Sam’s jíbaro (this is what we call a drug dealer in Colombia) arrived with the perico (that’s how we refer casually to cocaine in Colombia) we all went down to the kitchen. Suddenly my friends did something I found extremely strange: they set a pot with water to boil on the stove, and when it started to evaporate, they covered their heads with a towel and leaned over the pot to inhale the steam. What the hell are you doing? I asked stunned, are you guys coming down with pneumonia? With professorial serenity Graham explained to me that inhaling the water vapor helps dilate the lung’s alveoli and the respiratory conducts which in turn maximizes the absorption of cocaine. Since I strongly believe that when in Rome do as the Romans do, I too put the towel over my head and inhaled the water vapor, and then sniffed two generous lines of my country’s sweat and soil.

We had a wonderful evening, and a little later Camila, a friend of Graham´s who lives in Mexico, arrived. She told us, a propos of the cocaine, about a wonderful exhibition she had seen recently at the Whitney. It was the work of Helio Oiticica the Brazilian artist founder of Neoconcretism known for his inclination for coca, and who died at 42 years old of a heart attack. The evening went on calmly, among copious beers and generous lines of that perico of irreproachable quality. Spurred by the cocaine chlorhydrate and its happy marriage with alcohol, we conversed about music, philosophy and politics. To be provocative I suggested that sugar was more addictive and killed more people than cocaine. Graham strongly disagreed but admitted that the war against drugs is a criminal enterprise which has filled American jails with his black and Latino brothers.

After a few hours I took off and went home. Even though it was a relaxing night and I was enjoying a feeling of triumph and clairvoyance, I still had to be at work in 6 hours. The next day I felt unexpectedly rested and in such good disposition that I sent Graham this text: “Hi man, I feel light and strangely happy this morning, if I didn’t know better, I would say that cocaine is good for you. Do you happen to have Sam’s dealer’s number?” To which Graham replied: “I don’t, that coke is so good I purposefully don’t keep him in my contacts.”

Luis Antonio Montaña is a writer from Colombia.