PJ O’Rourke joked in his book ‘Holidays in Hell’ that a certain hotel in Albania was highly rated by journalists for the fact that the cocaine on sale in its nightclub was no better or worse than in London or New York, and that the reception staff were amenable to disguising bar tabs as laundry bills for those on expense accounts. If only he wrote for the Guardian – more unlikely things have happened, come on – he could have put the blow on his expense account as well. It looks like Jonathan Franklin has.
Franklin’s article in the Grauniad adopts a scandalised tone to expose the world of cocaine lounges in La Paz, painting a picture of small salons of depravity filled with moneyed Euro-American tourists paying to get high. The title of the piece is ‘The world’s first cocaine lounge’, which you could say was the first indication that the hyperbole of the article doesn’t quite live up to reality. World’s first? What, really? Has Mr Franklin ever been backstage at a music or film industry awards do? Has he ever been to some of the wilder parties in Bogotá, or even L.A? Not that I have, mind, but it doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to deduce that discreet nightclubs where a line or two is available alongside your drinks as a main feature of the place is hardly a global novelty.
But let’s not let that get in the way of a pleasant moral-high-ground buzz. There’s a whole wrap of misinformation to get through, so let’s start chopping.
The waiter arrives at the table, lowers the tray and places an empty black CD case in the middle of the table. Next to the CD case are two straws and two little black packets. He is so casual he might as well be delivering a sandwich and fries.
And then what happened? The waiter goes back to ‘calmly slicing straws into 8cm lengths’, and telling stories, while the journos quietly sweep the chopped-out lines onto the floor with their sleeves and, having gotten their story, go home for a mug of warm milk and an early night. Obviously. Because no-one actually pitches a story to a national newspaper about the time they went out with the aim of taking a load of cocaine, right? And I’m sure it would be libellous to suggest as much.
La Paz, Bolivia, at 3,900m above sea level – an altitude where even two flights of stairs makes your heart race like a hummingbird – is home to the most celebrated bar in all of South America: Route 36, the world’s first cocaine lounge.
Mm-hmm. Slippy with the details – LPZ is 3,600m above sea level, not 3,900 – and prone to exaggeration (“the most celebrated bar in all of South America” – so famous no-one I know has heard of it or mentioned it in 7 years of learning about Bolivia). Either someone’s been at the naughty salt, or the Grauniad needs a new fact-checker. The ‘world’s first’ claim we already dealt with. There’s a whole load more, ‘um, what?’ on the way, though!
Much of the article is given over to describing the international backpacker clientele of the bar – Australians here, a Geordie lass here, tables full of gringos of all stripes taking advantage of the availability of cheap, pure coke. In fact, Franklin does a very convincing job of making Route 36 sound like a standard stopover on a gap-year tour of South America. With such clear and focused demand, no wonder places like this are operating. So who does he attribute their existence to?
This new trend of ‘cocaine tourism’ can be put down to a combination of Bolivia’s notoriously corrupt public officials, the chaotic “anything goes” attitude of La Paz, and the national example of President Evo Morales, himself a coca grower
Oh, I see! It’s not, in fact, that there are thousands of disproportionately-wealthy foreign tourists with a desire to take drugs. Turns out it’s all Evo’s fault after all, not to mention the general chaos and city-wide collective ‘attitude’ of La Paz. (This, two sentences after he quotes one of his Bolivian journalistic counterpart as saying ‘Since they are an after-hours club and serve cocaine the neighbours tend to complain pretty fast‘). But nobody can blame cokeheads for their habit when the president is a coca farmer – after all, if my prime minister were a potato farmer, it would be completely justified if people here ate nothing but chips. And if my prime minister used to be a neoliberal economist, well, I’d consider it my duty to go out and rack up as much consumer debt as possible! Um…
As for Bolivia’s indisputable reputation in the foreign press as a world drug-manufacturing hotspot, I can’t do better than my cumpa Otto Rock at Inka Kola News for pointing out the inconsistencies. But before looking at what he has to say, let’s check out the UN data. According to this .pdf on coca and the cocaine market, acreage given over to coca cultivation, and megatons of coca leaf for sale, not destined for traditional markets, has gone up slightly in recent years. It’s still very little, quantity-wise, compared to Colombia, which produces 51% of the world’s cocaine (and where, I am convinced, cocaine bars are probably spoken of with barely a raise of the eyebrow) and Peru at 36%, compared to Bolivia’s 13%. Moreover, while the amount of leaf destined to be made into powder has increased, it’s nothing on the numbers recorded in the mid-90s when nice US-friendly neoliberal Goni was in power.
Otto, ever a handy man with the numbers, points out that this mild increase in cocaine production in Bolivia has been met by another increase, namely a leap in cocaine seizures since Evo kicked out the human-rights-abusing DEA and formed bilateral joint anti-narcotics teams with neighbours and encouraging small-scale community action against traffickers.(and I’m sorry for the immaturity but I still can’t help giggling a bit at the phrase ‘joint anti-drugs taskforce. Heh heh heh, he said ‘joint!’) Here’s a handy table of Otto’s showing the increase in seizures since domestic anti-drug forces took over narco-control duties from foreign forces – also note that a lot of labs are in the not-famously-Evo-loving east of the country. And if you like shiny bar charts, here are some more for you, showing that cocaine production in Bolivia has been fairly constant in recent years, and that global increases have mostly been down to Colombia.
I think the crux of reading data like this – and I do mean crux, because it’s like one of Alvarito’s famous points of bifurcation, you emerge from it with one of two understandings of the same situation – is whether or not you believe that seizures of large amounts of cocaine mean there is less or more cocaine available on the street. If you’re in Otto’s camp you can argue that busting cocaine labs, shutting down their operations and confiscating large quantities of drugs mid-traffic means that you are significantly lowering the amount of blow available through anti-narco action. When we’re considering hauls from drug busts that go into the megatons, then this can be convincing. On the other hand, if you measure the success or failure of drug control policies by how much coke is being manufactured in the first place, then you probably consider large-scale seizures to be symptomatic of the fact that there’s a lot more cocaine being produced, and attribute this rise in production to the political state of affairs, ignoring the considerable effort and money which the Bolivian government and its allies are putting into anti-narcotrafficking patrols and controls
All of which has to be considered while bearing in mind that Evo’s administration is extremely unlikely ever to return to the bad old days of Banzer, in lots of ways, but specifically with regard to the early 2000s when coca plantations were being forcibly eradicated on a grand scale. While I understand there has been eradication of coca plantations, and probably will be more, it’s logical to expect that anti-drug efforts will be concentrated on actually preventing drug manufacture and distribution rather than wiping out coca cultivation – the coca si, cocaina no approach. The UN’s data rests on an estimate of how many hectares are being given over to cultivating coca which is not destined for traditional usages, and one of the great challenges, of course, is to work out some non-narco, non-traditional usages for coca leaves. With its uniquely rich nutritional makeup and many interesting chemical and medicinal properties, it’s high time coca was put to use in arenas beyond its customary religious and social functions -something that would be a lot easier if the UN would hurry up and take it off the list of internationally controlled substances, so that it could be taken across borders. Returning the the Bolivian government’s reluctance to eradicate fields of coca by spraying toxic chemicals on them it seems logical that the means of controlling narcotrafficking is to make seizures of cocaine shipments.
Anyway, where did we leave friend Franklin? Back in La Paz, with his CD case of Guardian-purchased marching powder, which, dear reader, I am sure he was too scrupulous to touch, surrounded by other foreign visitors snorting away. He concludes with a vague condemnation of the failure of prohibitionist policies to “protect the lives of millions of users worldwide who will snort whatever white substance is placed before them.” Well, personally, I think it’s probably a losing game to try to look out for the interests of someone who will snort anything up to and including caustic soda, not to mention pretty insulting to self-respecting cokeheads to describe them as such. No government makes the decisions on behalf of an idiot in a nightclub, or a stockbroker in the loos adjoining the trading floor. But it’s his final remark which rankles most:
La Paz, without intending it, seems to have mutated into the front line of this failed drug war..
Failed it might be, but the frontlines of the drug war have been drawn in far fiercer places than Sopocachi. Get your thrill-seeking jollies in a bar full of gringos in La Paz, by all means, but don’t compare it to the viciously-fought-over drug supply routes in Mexico where assassination seems to be becoming a leading cause of death, or the Colombian jungles where government-linked paramilitaries routinely murder entire villages in the constant, bloody attrition of the drug war there. People are coming to discreet little bars in La Paz to get coked up precisely because, despite its loveable chaos, it’s fundamentally a safe place. It’s a city of hard-nosed, but ultimately good-hearted people who are less likely to kidnap you or shoot you in the head for no reason than in, say, Colombia. _That’s_ why the tourists go there to get their fix: not because of some coca-farming President and not because Bolivia’s drug industry is ZOMG a burgeoning threat. The reason cocaine bars exist is to cater to self-styled adventurers and would-be-tough-guy Guardian journalists: if it weren’t for you and your backpacker pals, Route 36 would not be. Additionally, special points for hypocrisy: it’s one thing to file an alarmist, scandalise-the-maiden-aunt story about a rise in drug production: it’s quite another to write it from the perspective of a customer of said drug production, buying a couple of lines to go with your rum and coke. If you’re going to take a moral high ground about drug production and consumption, it helps to not start your article by describing the purchase of cocaine.