Last Updated: Sunday, 8 October 2006, 19:04 GMT 20:04 UK
Transcript: Cocaine: Alex James in Colombia
NB: THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A TRANSCRIPTION UNIT RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT: BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF MIS-HEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY, IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS ACCURACY.
COCAINE: ALEX JAMES IN COLOMBIA
Reporter: ALEX JAMES
RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE
JEREMY VINE: Good evening and welcome to Panorama. Cocaine, Britain's favourite hard drug, manufactured by peasants in a war zone, marketed by celebrities in nightclubs. So when a rock star who blew a million on a cocaine lifestyle is invited to witness its true cost, will he take up the challenge?
ALEX JAMES: It's a long, long, long way from a cheeky line at a dinner party in Notting Hill.
JEREMY VINE: Colombia, the country which produces most of Britain's cocaine is trying to shame users of the drug here by exposing the violence and misery that it causes over there, and who better to target than the celebrities who use cocaine? Well Kate Moss didn't rise to the bait. Poor Amy Winehouse doesn't really look in any fit state to. But Alex James, the base player with Blur who's turned his back on the drug, is made of sterner stuff and this is his report for Panorama.
ALEX JAMES: I'm Alex James and I'm a farmer. In a previous life I played base in the band Blur and I recently hit the headlines for writing about how I spent a million pounds on champagne and cocaine.
Alex is the real party animal of the band. It's amazing... amazing... amazing...
ALEX: This came to the attention of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. He sent me this letter in which he says: "I sign this heartfelt letter of invitation for you to come to our beautiful country and see not only the pain that the drug trade has wrought upon us but the hope and strength with which we keep moving forward." and I think I owe it to him to accept. This is going to be my gift to President Uribe. I hope he likes cheese. Food is what brings people together more than music.
I wonder how many people who take cocaine know anything about where it comes from. Colombia supplies 80% of all the world's coke, worth something like 56 billion dollars a year. Fifty journalists have been killed in the last five years mainly for exposing trafficking and corruption. It's one of the most dangerous places on the planet for a journalist to be. What am I doing here? A very good question.
My first meeting today is with Vice-President Santos who wrote me this letter on behalf of the presidency. In a recent interview Santos was quoted as saying: "We need to tell Europeans that every ounce of cocaine that they snort is tainted in blood.
So why have you invited me here? What can I do?
Vice-President of Colombia
If the information that you're able to provide that you can see, that you saw, of the environmental damage convinces one person of saying.. you know, I'm not going to do this, I'm going to stick with beer, even gallons of it, it was well worth it. You saved a life there and probably you saved a life here because that person that starts consuming coke, all that money comes here to finance landmines, destruction of the environment, terrorism, kidnapping, displacement. So in a person like you who has assumed a personal responsibility regarding this problem can really help us show the other side of the coin. If I say it they wont believe me. If you say it, because of what you saw, they'll believe you a lot more. They'll believe us a lot more. Great having you here.
San José Guaviare Military Base
ALEX: I'm not on tour, I want to see everything. At this antinarcotics base in the South they're overseeing the chemical spraying of thousands of hectares of illegal coca plantations. Plan Colombia is a controversial five billion dollar coca eradication plan introduced in 2000. Every year the US pours money into the military who are engaged in their own war with rebel groups that's attracted criticism around the world.
The way this is really going to work is that we're going to be flying around trying to get everything that's going and the people on the ground, some of the most really dangerous characters in the world are going to be trying to kill us. We're right in the thick of it here, 26,000 hectares of coca plantations, 23½ thousand of which have already been destroyed, 2½ thousand left to go. I'm strapped down in a Black Hawk, state of the art helicopter / jump jet 26,000 feet above ground level. Now I know an AK47 is no rival at 1500 feet.
Out of the Black Hawk open doors the immaculate rain forest stretches as far as the eye can see, broken only by pockets of coca fields. Every now and again the spray planes flash beneath us fumigating. Vice President Santos talks of this spraying being ineffective and insists the plants should be dug up by hand, and this unit was the first to do this highly dangerous work. Thirty-two of them were killed last year, that's 10% of the workforce. They want me to see what they do so we're going to land. Apparently this coca field may also be a mine field.
So the Black Hawk set us down in a coca field. What's going on Gustavo?
GUSTAVO: Well we have ?? plants.
ALEX: How old would these be? Look at that, you can grow willow like that. They just cut off a twig, stuck it in the ground.
Glyphosate spraying monitor
Yes, yes, absolutely right. I mean those plants come from cuttings. They were not come from seed beds.
ALEX: And this little leaf, that's all they're after.
ALEX: So Vice President Santos thinks this is the best way to eradicate coca growing?
GUSTAVO: Well yeah, at least in terms of modern methods this is really great.
ALEX: Hang on, you're going to get dug up there, mate. I think we should move out the way.
We've only got a ten minute window here so we've got to get back on the helicopter. You see how difficult it is to try and basically pull up coca plantations in the heart of rebel territory. See if I can get up to the helicopter without treading on a mine. Thankfully we get back to base without being fired at, not as uncommon as you might think.
So all these little patches are like band aids where it's been shot.
GUSTAVO: Yeah, exactly.
ALEX: So there's one there...
GUSTAVO: One here also.
ALEX: One there, a whole wing panel there. So this has taken a fair bit of flack.
GUSTAVO: Never know if they are going to return.
ALEX: Are these planes flown by Americans or Colombians?
GUSTAVO: (shakes head negatively)
ALEX: The planes behind me are American. The flight crews are American. Now the Colombians have been very happy to talk to us but the Americans have made it clear they won't answer any questions whatsoever. I'm not an expert but that seems a little bit odd.
It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon in Bogotá and I'm about to meet a dealer, a big shot, he's at the door. We can't tell the whole story without talking to them and I've got quite a lot of questions for him. Dealers - nobody loves 'em. They might get invited to a lot of weddings but no one shows up to their funerals.
Hi, Alex, cheers. Thanks for coming. Cheers. Come in.
DEALER: Welcome to Colombia.
ALEX: Thank you very much.
DEALER: My friend told me you wanted to see our national product.
ALEX: Don't worry, I'm not tempted.
I was in a band and this stuff is the oil that greases the rock 'n roll industry and people are paying £60 a gram for this in London. Actually this is pure. I mean you'd probably get sort of 180 quid for a gram of that. Is that kind of the life blood of your business?
DEALER: To make money in this business selling this you have to sell to the upper classes. This product, whether we like it or not, is being consumed by artists, business men, industrialists.
ALEX: So how does the business work? Is it easy? Does it take all day? D you have to get up and treat it... is it like an office job?
DEALER: This business itself isn't difficult. The difficult thing is learning how to manage your contacts. You don't know who you are dealing with, whether they are trustworthy or not.
ALEX: He tells me he used to get cocaine out of the country in surf boards until one fell over at the airport spilling its contents all over the floor.
DEALER: Rest assured, while there's something to produce, the narco trafficker is exploring a lot of ways in which to export it. But if it needs to be exported, it will be exported.
ALEX: I'm from England. Is that a big market for you now, England, London, Manchester, Birmingham, St Austell?
DEALER: The connection to Europe is through Spain. Spanish mafia then export it around Europe. I think that most Europeans see it as a requisite for a party or a gig. If I don't want to drink, I don't have one. If I don't want a line, I don't have one. It's a personal choice. Okay, that's it?
ALEX: Cheers. (laughs) You're friendly, aren't you. (laugh)
Was that the devil or was that just quite a nice bloke selling really good drugs to people who need 'em? They're just ordinary people involved with a chemical nobody can control. Nobody can control their cocaine intake - nobody.
The tragic figure in that situation isn't the dealer, it's his little mate.
There's a human cost to all this. The government is proud to have reduced its murder rate to 17,000 per year. It's 8 o'clock at night. I'm discovering that cocaine and violence are inextricable here in Colombia. I'm out of my depth. It's a long, long way from a cheeky line at a dinner party in Notting Hill. It's terrifying. This is probably the oddest thing I've ever said but I'm about to meet the contract killer used by one of the cartels here in the city. Apparently he's going to be disguised as a taxi driver today. We want to find out how busy he is.
How is the hit man used by the cocaine gangs?
HIT MAN: We look after the boss' business affairs, yes? The boss is the man who give us work. He has the power, so it's not just a case of recovering debt for them. We need to look after them day to day because they are people who have enemies.
ALEX: What would be the minimum debt that you'd be called to act upon?
HIT MAN: We charge 30% of total debt, 30% of it all.
ALEX: Is all the work related to cocaine ultimately?
HIT MAN: Everything. In recent years everything that goes down here in Colombia is related to drug trade. Today the vast majority of the murders, homicides, fighting and armed conflict that happens here, happens because of narco trafficking, because of drugs. That is a cancer that is affecting the country. That is a cancer that makes money all over the place because there's a lot of bad, but it also feeds a lot of people including the government where it gives them employ.
ALEX: And is there a lot of work, are you busy?
HIT MAN: Of course. I work every day.
ALEX: I was just starting to feel really relaxed and then I asked if he had a gun with him and he just whipped it out from under his leg. I'd no idea it was right there.
Is it a Barrette?
ALEX: Brilliant. Okay, well I think we should get out of here now.
I mean he's a soldier basically, a private soldier. I was so... you know, it's so easy to forget who you're dealing with, you know, just one tough guy, but see why. See why people like it, it's exciting.
That's the business end. What about the people who actually make the stuff, farmers like me?
We're flying to El Charco, one hour from the city of Kali to see Colombia's biggest coca producing region, the district of Narinio. The farmers of El Charco process their own base cocaine known as hashva and sell it on to middle men and illegal jungle factories that turn it into pure cocaine. It's a bit like a wheat farmer turning his wheat into flour and selling it on to a bakery to make bread.
There it is below us, El Charco, a community of 32,000 people. The landing strip is just a tiny break in the rain forest's canopy. The runway is immaculately maintained. Why would a tiny farming community need a state of the art tarmac runway? I wonder.
So just arrived in the jungle, we're gonna hop on a boat and head for a coca farm.
The government is starting schemes to encourage the growing of bio fuel crops and jungle stewardship, but it's too early to be making an impact. The farm belongs to Sótero Micolta. He's a widower and he lives here with six of his children. One of his sons was recently killed by rebels further downstream. His farm is 20 minutes walk away. It was recently targeted by the spray planes. As I reach his land I can see clearly where the glyphosate has hit, nearly everything is dead.
MICOLTA: This is the banana.
ALEX: It's just been sprayed.
MICOLTA: It's finished.
ALEX: We went on a spraying mission and they said that they only spray coca, so that's not true, is it.
But here you go, you can see the truth. They are spraying everything, everything we can eat. What are we supposed to eat? You die of hunger here.
ALEX: Is the coca more valuable than the bananas or the coffee as a crop?
MICOLTA: We don't grow it because we want to. We grow it because we have no choice. Without it we can't survive. If the government gave us an alternative and money to set up a business, then nobody would grow coca round here.
ALEX: Sótero Micolta only started growing coca six years ago. The prior to that he earned $132 a month. As a coca farmer he can earn more than 530. The deeper I delve into cocaine in Colombia, the more complicated it gets. Right behind me they're harvesting coca leaves that were sprayed just four weeks ago. Coca can be cropped four to six times a year and once harvested farmers take it for processing, that's where we're going now.
The lab belongs to the mother of one of the boat crew. He'd rather we didn't name him so I won't. We're just getting into the rainy season here and my Gringo Bond Street boots just aren't cutting it. The going is hard and heavy. Civil war has been raging here since the 60s and this jungle is the battle ground of the rebel factions. He used the drug trade to fund their activities. Here we are, a cocaine workshop. It's an extraordinary process. First the leaves are found and mixed in cement then petrol is added. This releases an alkaloid in the leaf. Cold water and sulphuric acid next, drain off the gasoline, that leaves a paste, boil the paste, add a reactive. Smells worse than blown cheese. In this region there are hundreds of makeshift cocaine labs just like this one. Farmers here call them chongos and it's in these ramshackle huts that they turn their coca leaves into cocaine base. It's then sold on to bigger labs for processing into cocaine hydrochloride - coke, Charlie, Chang, whatever. This is what they make here - pasta basica. About this many leaves, as many as would fit into this barrel would make about this much pasta basica, 50 grams. This will make 25 grams of pure cocaine which, when it's cut, will be worth about £3000 in London. We pack up and head for civilisation and a worrying development.
We had some quite disturbing news about an hour ago. One of the team that we flew with at San José del Guaviare, the airforce base to the south, was killed today on a manual coca picking eradication programme and what we were doing three days ago.
Cocaine can't get to the UK without smugglers of course. We're at Modelo Prison. We're here to meet a mule - that's someone who takes drugs across borders. All I know about this mule is that he's American and he's called Steve. He's trafficked cocaine and heroin.
We're in. I do hope we can get out. There's 4,591 inmates in this prison, 250 of which are foreigners. All of those 250 are in here for drug-related offences so either mules or money laundering or some kind of drug related crime. The man I was meeting was serving two years seven months.
First trip I made I didn't want to know what I was carrying.
ALEX: Really, so it could have been...
STEVE: It could have been 300 kilos of cow shit, I wouldn't have cared. Just as long as I got it to New York I got paid.
ALEX: And how much did you get paid?
STEVE: 12,000 US.
ALEX: 12,000 US, for how much did you....?
STEVE: Three kilos. The money's just... the money is too good, especially if you can do a couple of trips and then invest in the product yourself, that's where the money's at, not doing it for.. not being somebody's mule. I know like all the Spaniards that are in my patio, 99% of them are mules and they are all here for cocaine, all got caught at Bogart's El Dorado.
ALEX: That's the airport at Bogotá?
STEVE: Yeah. Whoever your watchers or listeners are, if they're planning on doing this trip ?? ??. I know plenty of people ?? have done 10, 12 trips and no problems at all.
ALEX: I mean you just don't care, do you, you just don't care.
STEVE: It's too much, no.
ALEX: So what would stop you?
STEVE: Probably a healthy sentence or a bullet, one or the other.
ALEX: I'm leaving here with a great sense of relief. It's a very oppressive place. Steve, or whoever he was, obviously hasn't learnt his lesson. As soon as he gets out he's going to do it all over again. In fact the people who he worked for will even buy him out so he can do it again quicker. That's a quantum leap directly from the Esquerra Prison to the majesty of state. I'm about to meet Colombian President Avaro Uribe in the presidential palace. He's a hard line right-winger. He was elected to a second term in May 2006 and he's been very tough on rebel groups and drug traffickers. Some say he's driven by the fact that his father was killed by rebels 20 years ago.
AVARO URIBE: Alex, I'm the President. Very nice to see you.
ALEX: Very nice to be here.
AVARO: Thank you for coming.
ALEX: Thank you for having me. I'd like to present you with some of my cheese if I may.
AVARO: Oh, thank you very much.
ALEX: A move from hard drugs to soft cheese now. It's very smelly, goat cheese.
AVARO: Excellent. Thank you. Alex, I am ready.
ALEX: Did you feel anger towards the people who are taking drugs in England and taking cocaine in England who know nothing about what's going on here?
President of Colombia
Of course, of course. Every dose of cocaine is gasoline for assassinations in Colombia? In Europe consumption is growing.
AVARO: Therefore at this moment we need a much stronger effort in Europe. First to intercept traffickers, to stop illegal businesses in the European cities' streets.
ALEX: If people realised that every kilogram of cocaine that arrived is basically arriving in someone's tomb, maybe.. you know, maybe they wouldn't be... think it was quite so cool.
AVARO: And here cocaine is evil, that's how they tell me, many problems for this country is the cause of a great tragedy.
ALEX: Brave guy, many attempts on his life. I support him. I support that guy, measured, a statesman in a country that needed one badly. He's right though. There's so many wonderful, wonderful things here and really only one bad one.
MAN: You're becoming quite anti-coke aren't you.
ALEX: I'm surprised but when you see what it does to a country like this, I think anybody... anybody would, even people who do it just hate themselves a bit more.
I'm heading back to my farm now. I can't help thinking that if farmers like Sotero had the option of selling other crops, they'd leap at it. There's no government in the world that's seriously considering legalising cocaine, but governments just aren't capable of upholding drug laws. If you can't stop people taking drugs, then you can't stop people making drugs. I'm reminded of the words of my man, the drug dealer.
DEALER: The clients look for it, I don't offer it, but as long as there are people who want to buy it, I will sell it to them.
VINE: Alex James there and one footnote to his report. The gunman you saw being interviewed in the car was himself killed over the New Year. Now if you're one of Britain's 800,000 cocaine users you might want to tell us what you thought of what you've just seen. Do get on the website bbc.co.uk/panorama.
Next week we investigate allegations of fraud and over valuation in the property market which has already seen some prices fall by as much as 60%.