Cocaine Unwrapped: the links in the global drugs trade

Rachel Seifert’s documentary Cocaine Unwrapped begins, quite pointedly, on the streets of London.  Grainy images of the iconic buildings of the City are interspersed with masses of blurred commuters as individuals measure out lines of coke; in a voice over unidentified Londoners speak about their normal cocaine consumption habits.  The overall effect creates a sense of the normalcy and widespread nature of recreational cocaine use in the UK.

All this seems, as is, a world away from the images we normally associate with the drugs trade: gun-toting cartels in Latin America, coca fields in the Andes, the violence in Ciudad Juárez, and the police and army forces who have been used to combat the trade in the war on drugs.

Seifert’s documentary aims to show the links in the global drugs trade, between its violent consequences in distant Latin America and the product consumed in parties across the capital.  Rather than just concentrating on where and how cocaine is produced and trafficked, Cocaine Unwrapped goes on an impressive journey from consumers in the UK to the streets and prisons of Baltimore in the US, the coca fields of Colombia and Bolivia, visiting drugs mules in Ecuador and former gang members, drug dealers and members of the law enforcement in Mexico.

Fundamentally, the story it traces speaks out not just against cocaine or the drugs trade itself but against the repressive policies which have formed the basis for the war on drugs and the international stance on drugs policy.  As the documentary informs us, the war on drugs was launched by President Nixon in 1971 and the policy of prohibition has continued ever since, in which billions of dollars have been spent on combating the drugs trade.  In recent years the US-backed Plan Colombia has invested more than $6 billion in military aid to Colombia, combating drug trafficking through the aerial fumigation of illegal coca crops; in Mexico Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in 2006 with millions of dollars spent on the militarization of the country in the fight against the drug cartels.

Cocaine Unwrapped uncovers the human, economic and social consequences to the war on drugs.  In Colombia we are introduced to Maria Francisca a coca farmer whose crops, and livelihood, have been repeatedly destroyed by fumigation.  It has been widely shown that Plan Colombia’s fumigation policies have destroyed the environment, ecosystems, health and livelihoods of thousands of Colombian campesinos.  A telling moment in the film comes from the testimony of Carlos, another coca farmer who only began to cultivate coca after his other crops were destroyed by the government’s indiscriminate fumigation policies: ‘I’m surviving because I still have some coca fields’, he states, ‘otherwise I would have joined the guerrillas by now’.

Likewise, in Ecuador we visit El Inca women’s prison, in a country in which a shocking 75% of women in jail are on drugs charges; ‘Nelsy’ has served nearly six years for working as a drugs mule to support her family.  The film questions the severity of the charges against those at the bottom of the trade, those small time drug dealers, female drugs mules and campesinos who live on the margins of poverty and for whom the drugs trade is the only form of making a living.  In Baltimore, a city which has suffered the effects of deindustrialization and the growth of the drugs trade an African-American prisoner questions why he has received a 25 year jail sentence for a small drugs charge, on a par with murder and pedophilia.

Importantly, the documentary contrasts some of the alternative approaches being taken in Latin America.  In Bolivia President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, has fought to shift the attack on the coca leaf itself to an attack on its chemical conversion into cocaine.  In Bolivia the coca leaf not only forms an integral element of indigenous culture and society but is being transformed into commercial products such as tea, soap and cosmetics.  In Ecuador, the government of Rafael Correa has taken a more rehabilitative approach to those convicted on lesser drugs charges, pardoning more than 2000 women imprisoned for working as drugs mules and shortening prison sentences.

The critiques of left-wing Latin American leaders such as Morales and Correa are reflected in the opinions of César Gaviria, former president of Colombia, and a series of experts and political leaders interviewed in the film.  The belief that the war on drugs has failed and that alternative international drugs policies must be sought have also been reflected recently in the opinion of a number of Latin American leaders.  Not only left-leaning governments but those who have traditionally backed a repressive stance on drugs policy, such as the Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, have called on Western governments for alternatives to the violent war which has cost so many lives in their countries.  Many Latin American leaders, as shown in April’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, seem to be pushing for a more liberal approach to international drugs policy and away from prohibition and the US-backed war on drugs.

Moreover, these leaders have called on the West to take greater responsibility for its role in the global drugs trade.  As Mike Trace, Chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium and the former deputy UK drug tsar, points out in the film the British consumer needs to understand that cocaine, like many other commodities, is not produced and traded fairly.  Hearing the anonymous voice of middle-class Londoners speaking about how a line of coke is a casual part of their weekend makes you reflect on why we do not, as we do with bananas, chocolate, coffee etc., demand that coke be traded fairly.  For every gram of cocaine bought in London for an average of 50 pounds, a Colombian coca farmer will receive less than 50 pence, notwithstanding the thousands who have been displaced, killed and imprisoned for a little line of white powder on a Saturday night.

Cocaine Unwrapped’s premiere screening takes place in London on the 16th of May.  Watch the trailer here.

The film can be screened online here.