Celebrated documentary-maker Angus Macqueen spent 18 months on the cocaine trail across Latin America from the dirt-poor valleys of Peru to the shanty towns of Rio. Here he recalls the journey that revolutionised his views and explains why he believes 'the dandruff of the Andes' should be sold in Boots.
This is when your lungs get fucked,' the cook splutters as he unscrews the top of a plastic bottle and carefully pours hydrochloric acid into the brown liquid. Gun tucked in his waistband, he reacts nervously to any sound, even the chickens rooting through the undergrowth. We have been told to run if any shooting starts but are not sure where to. At the bottom of the bowl, the acid and the brown liquid start to turn white.
A minute in the microwave, and we have a kilo of cocaine.
We are in the depths of the Peruvian jungle watching coca leaves being converted into one of the most potent commodities on the planet.
Using a few leaves, lime, alcohol and acid, cocaine costs about UKP500 a kilo to make. By the time it reaches the streets of Soho, supplemented with anything from aspirin to powdered glass, it weighs two kilos and is worth around UKP35,000. A profit of more than UKP34,000.
For 18 months I have trailed stories about the iconic drug of my lifetime. The journey took me into places I never believed you could get to: the deepest Andes in Peru to see cocaine being made, and the devastation of a culture; to the slums of Rio to see a city at war; and to the estates of Colombian drug barons to witness the unravelling of a state.
We were seeking the voices of the men and the women behind its production and explore the effect on their lives of the West's 'war on drugs'. The degree to which my producers persuaded these 'criminals' to speak direct to camera is testimony to the outrageous confidence of some and the desperation of others.
In 20 years of filming around the world I have never taken cocaine, despite its ever-increasing availability. At the start of the project, I broadly supported the Blair government's more liberal policy of allowing people to have and to smoke cannabis.
I agreed that hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin remained beyond the pale, accepting we had to fight them in every way possible. Though I have a number of friends who seem to be able to enjoy the occasional snort without problems, I have also witnessed the distressing effects of addiction.
This journey has revolutionised my views.
I now believe that the tragedy we witnessed in Latin America has little to do with the damage the drugs do to people's heads.
The tragedy is a result of the drugs being illegal.
People will do a lot for a UKP34,000-per-kilo profit.
My journey begins in the spring of 2003 in the impossibly beautiful valley of Monzon in the Peruvian Andes. The road winds alongside a ravine through small dilapidated villages overhung by lush jungle.
Gradually the hills turn into mountains rising up from the road, accessible only via a network of small paths.
This is ancient Inca land but my Rough Guide to Peru doesn't even mention the valley.
It describes a main road further back as a 'dangerous route'. The reason becomes obvious: clinging to the precipitous slopes of the mountains: neat rows of lime-green plants, fields of coca. In Peru (unlike Colombia) it is legal to grow a limited amount of coca for 'personal use' because for centuries peasants here have chewed the leaf to give them energy or ward off toothache.
But these fields are not for personal use.
Reaching the one-street town at the end of the valley, I feel we have entered a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The few people sitting on benches in the shade outside the Hotel Central pass the time of day spitting in the dust. They studiously ignore us, but everybody has clocked there is a gringo in town. Monzon is in the badlands where the police have not had a presence in 10 years.
The locals do not like outsiders, who are invariably out to destroy their livelihood. At 10pm, the electricity goes off and the town goes dark. Alone in my hotel room, a mosquito-infested concrete cell, any passing shadow could be a man with a gun.
Given the glamour of cocaine, the most striking thing about the valley is the poverty.
An hour's walk up one of the mountain paths, the Zavalas live beside their fields in a small wooden shack.
Coca is their only crop and the family are constantly picking and drying - it produces leaves four times a year. The father, Edgar, is a small taciturn figure in a ragged T-shirt and compulsory moustache.
He talks quietly of the government's eradication campaign and of a fungus that has been sprayed, which is drying out their plants, and sometimes poisoning the locals.
The valley is a major target of the campaign, run by the Peruvian anti-drugs police, and financed by the United States as part of their attempt to wipe out drug production in Peru and Colombia.
While most peasants claim they only grow coca leaves and have nothing to do with producing cocaine, Edgar admits that he used to have a small 'laboratory' to produce paste, the first stage in converting leaves into cocaine. 'I no longer have a lab. We cannot grow enough because of the fungus. I stopped when I realised it was all risk and no profit.' He remembers how in the past everyone simply paid off the anti-drug teams. 'For years the army was running the drugs out of the valley.'
The recent campaign is hurting.
Edgar can no longer afford to keep his teenage son in school.
The son works on the farm - though ironically there is talk of him joining the anti-drugs police, which pays well and in dollars. Their 20-year-old daughter is still studying but is willing to do virtually anything to get out of the valley.
Her parents watch helplessly as she is drawn into 'sexy dancing' and towards prostitution. 'All the girls who dance get proposals usually from those with power, the drug traffickers, the ones with the guns.'
Edgar chews his coca: 'The government has not thought through the consequences of this campaign.
If things go on as they are, the peasants will be forced into the arms of the guerrillas to protect themselves.' The guerrillas are the Shining Path, who terrorised Peru in the 1980s, but almost disappeared when their leader was captured 10 years ago. Now there is talk of their return to defend the coca farmers.
Edgar should know. He used to be a local guerrilla commander.
This is exactly what has happened in Colombia - there the FARC guerrillas have become deeply involved in cocaine, in the guise of defending the peasants.
Certainly the peasants are in radical mood. They organise marches against the government and America, chanting slogans such as 'Why have the evil gringos polluted our little plants?' Their leader, Iburcio Morales, says: 'All our crops, not just coca, are being attacked by this fungus.
It makes the crop replacement programme useless.' He is referring to the second prong of attack on coca: a UN and government-run programme to encourage peasants to replace coca with crops such as rice, bananas, avocado or coffee.
The farmers claim these alternatives are not economical. The West does not want their bananas. 'In the US and Europe, farmers get subsidies, we get nothing.' Our consultant from Lima, who works on the UN programme, confirms that the peasants are essentially right: 'They try out other crops.
They get one harvest a year and then they cannot sell the products.
It does not add up and they go back to growing coca.'
So the peasants move deeper into the mountains to clear fields for new crops. The laboratories follow.
While we are filming, the authorities strike - eight helicopter-gunships packed with heavily armed special forces launch a mission into the valley.
When we ask to fly with them, I am referred to the US embassy in Lima. While insisting this is a Peruvian operation, one of the officers in charge says: 'The Americans own the helicopters and pay for the missions.
They decide such things.' It seems the peasants have a point when they claim that this whole policy comes, not from Lima, but from 'the imperialists from the north'. The official in the US embassy refuses our request.
After three days, the Peruvian commanders triumphantly claim to have destroyed more than 70 paste laboratories. But when we go back up the valley, the cook who showed us how to make cocaine, takes it all in his stride: 'You need so little to set up a lab - a press and a couple of buckets. You can organise one in a couple of hours.
People will be paranoid for a few days but they'll be back. It's the only way to survive round here.'
Just over a month later he sends us a message saying his partners had made more than a tonne of cocaine.
The tonne had been successfully smuggled into Europe. Our cook earned UKP100,000. And later last spring, as Edgar predicted, the Shining Path guerrillas did re-emerge. For the first time in years they launched a full-scale attack on a town just outside the valley.
They drove out the police and raised the red flag, all the while claiming to defend the coca farmers.
A cocaine-financed conflict looms - just like in Colombia - and the victims will again be the peasants.
Maria Cristina Chirolla is a compelling woman in her mid-forties - dazzling smile, coiffed hair, dark suit. It's hard to believe there is a price on her head. We are in her office in the attorney-general's building in Bogota, a bomb-proof concrete bunker.
Chirolla is the head of the unit fighting money laundering - the estimated UKP4 billion that Colombia's drug traffickers make every year in profit.
Surrounded by aides and a press spokesman, she talks about their new policy of seizing the properties and businesses of drug traffickers. With generous aid and advice from the US, they are making real progress in the war on drugs, re-establishing the rule of law... Glazing slightly, I see a familiar face over her desk. 'Why do you have Kafka on the wall?' I ask. Chirolla smiles but goes on with her success story.
Half an hour after we leave, my producer Guillermo's mobile rings.
It is Maria Cristina Chirolla inviting herself to dinner.
She turns up at our hotel in jogging pants, the make-up gone. 'I'll just have a soup, I am on a diet.' Passionate, committed and frightened - for three hours she overwhelms us with her honesty about the scale of the problem. 'How can we destroy an industry that generates enough money to enable the drug cartels to have private armies?
How do we fight people who can afford the best lawyers and financial advisers?
For 25 years, billions of dollars have been laundered back into the legal economy at every level and we can no longer trace the difference.' She unravels the nightmare that is government in Colombia. You can trust no one. The traffickers have people everywhere from the very top to the very bottom.
Their money can bribe almost anyone.
And if they cannot buy, they kill - a habit which has turned Colombia into one of the most dangerous places on earth.
An assassin can be hired for UKP60 a hit.
We are filming her when she hears that two men have been caught planning to assassinate her. The hit should have taken place when we were with her, travelling on what was supposed to be a secret mission to raid the property of a trafficker. 'Everything leaks here,' she moans.
Days later she learns that a terrorist cell has been set up by drug traffickers to target her. The cell is based in an army officer's club in Bogota.
Why does she do the job? 'Because Colombia needs honest people.
It is so hypocritical: my country is seen as the world centre of violence and corruption - but the money comes from a demand for drugs in the United States and Europe.' The price of her honesty is a life of almost constant fear. Once again at the heart of the battle with cocaine is US dollars.
Plan Colombia, the biggest US aid package to any country outside the Middle East, has seen almost $3 billion poured into largely military resources over the past five years.
The plan's initial aim was to destroy the cocaine industry at its source, as in Peru, but now an astute right-of-centre Colombian government has persuaded President Bush to let them use the money in their long-running battle with the left-wing FARC guerrillas, on the grounds that they are involved in the cocaine trade.
So the war on drugs is cleverly drawn into the war on terror.
But the causes of Colombia's civil war have nothing to do with drugs.
The war has being going on for over half a century, and huge swathes of the country are outside government control. You cannot drive safely between most cities.
Rooted in the revolutionary politics of 50 years ago, the war is still described in terms of left and right.
In most of the rest of Latin America such full-scale ideological conflicts died away with the Cold War. In Colombia cocaine money keeps that war alive.
The various factions have taken over from the big cartels - the right-wing paramilitaries even more than the guerrillas. The paramilitaries are the real controllers of the drug trade and getting to meet them involves negotiating permission to enter their territory.
After a flight to the north and a long drive through glorious cattle country, we are greeted at a ranch by a local commander, code name Zero 8, accompanied by his pet leopard.
Zero 8 is from an educated landowning family.
His brother, I learn later, is a senator in Colombia's congress.
Zero 8 won't appear on camera but we are free to film the 300 armed troops parading on the football pitch. 'We provide our 25,000 troops with proper pay and even holiday leave,' he says proudly. He reminisces about how he joined the paramilitaries to defend his family farm from the guerrillas. The paramilitaries are allies of the government, he argues, rooting out left-wing subversion. I recall the reports of massacres and murders of trade unionists that have been laid at their door.
After dark, their leader turns up, surrounded by Uzi-toting bodyguards. Salvatore Mancuso, wearing a white linen shirt, Rolex, revolver and dangerous smile, is exactly how I imagined a major trafficker. While his subordinates are shy about their involvement with cocaine, Mancuso is not: 'Seventy per cent of our troops are in territories that we have taken from the guerrillas in which drug trafficking takes place - so 70 per cent of our money comes from our tax on drug trafficking.' Like Chirolla in the government, Mancuso believes cocaine is a gringo problem visited on Colombians from outside. 'If they did not demand it, we would not supply it.'
And supply it they do. Back with Maria Cristina Chirolla, we travel in a confiscated fast-boat powered by three 250 horsepower engines.
The naval officer in charge describes how 'this boat packed with cocaine leaves the Colombian coast worth UKP100,000 and arrives in Mexico worth some UKP10 million'. He explains how planes hop at tree level across Central America and 'of course there is the specially made submarine which is working a route up the Pacific coast'. It is made clear that the paramilitaries control these routes north.
Despite this, the government is now in peace talks with the paramilitaries. Last July, the Colombian congress invited Salvatore Mancuso to address them on the subject of the war against subversion. Under government protection, he turned up in his suit to address the Congress on his troops' achievements. He did not mention drugs.
While a wanted drug trafficker addresses the Colombian Congress, and the US administration claims Plan Colombia is a success, a million Colombians are displaced and the price of cocaine on Western streets remains the same. And that price is determined by supply.
We are crouching in a house in the slum of Santa Marta in Rio. Just below is the beautiful city, its beaches full of beautiful people.
Inside the house, a group of adolescent boys have covered their heads in balaclavas. They are stuffing little plastic bags with white powder from a metal tray, all the while lovingly describing their 'pieces', which run from a magnum to rocket launchers and home-made bombs.
Their leader, barely out of his teens, makes clear: 'Without the white stuff there is no crime.
'This is where the real money is. We are the parallel power.' There is no question of the power these crazy young men wield over the thousands who live in Rio's slums.
One man recalls how, aged 11, he was drawn into the gangs because his single mother could not afford sandals for her kids and went through rubbish bins for food. He is determined his own sons will get an education and not join the gangs.
As the packing goes on, the young boys begin snorting and waving guns: 'We buy them from the police.' Once again the money from cocaine has completely rotted the system.
We end up filming a police raid - guns firing in every direction. Packs of cocaine are seized.
Three weeks later, we hear the policeman in charge of the raid has been arrested - for selling drugs back to the gangs.
Just as with Colombia's civil war, all the social problems cannot be laid at the door of cocaine.
But the white stuff feeds huge amounts of criminal money into the conflict.
The picture, though not on the same scale, is much the same on British and American inner-city streets.
When we read about the rise of gun crime, the phrase 'drugs-related' is rarely far away as rivals battle for a piece of that UKP34,000-per-kilo profit.
This journey has left me thinking the politically unthinkable. With an election looming, the Blair government has made the war on drugs a populist law-and-order priority, once again conflating the taking of drugs with the crime and violence that surrounds them. But it is the war itself that is the problem. The politicians rightly warn that demand will go up if it is legalised. Not good but not the nightmare they summon up. Neither cocaine or heroin is a cancer.
In quantities it destroys your nose and is bad for your brain, but it very rarely kills - unlike that other addictive plant we can use legally: tobacco.
Nor is it a direct cause of violence, like alcohol.
Let's be honest.
People try drugs, whether in the form of alcohol or pills, because they are fun. Tens of thousands of UK citizens regularly consume cocaine; hundreds of thousands more use other illegal drugs, completely discrediting the law. In his book Cocaine, Dominic Streatfield quotes the monetarist Milton Friedman: 'I do not think you can eradicate demand. The lesson we have failed to learn is that prohibition never works. It makes things worse not better.'
Streatfield quotes the extraordinary statistics involved in fighting cocaine and drugs.
Here are a couple: over the past 15 years, the US has spent UKP150 billion trying to stop its people getting hold of drugs.
In Britain and the US almost 20 per cent of the prison population is inside for drugs offences. So what is left? We can muddle on or we can legalise cocaine - and indeed all drugs.
This won't solve the social ills of poverty or inequality here or in Latin America but it would remove vast sums of money from the criminal world.
We should allow the farmers to grow coca and sell it for decent prices direct to government-controlled factories which can produce a high-quality product. And then it should be sold over the counter from registered chemists such as Boots to anyone over 18 at a reasonable, taxed price that does not encourage a black market.
At least then we will know it is pure. Then we must attack demand by using some of the millions saved to invest in education drives that are honest.
Look how effective a generation of anti-smoking education has been in bringing the public behind stringent restrictions on smoking in public, but not an outright ban.
Yes, more people will try these drugs and there will be tragedies.
But 30 years of the war on drugs have achieved almost nothing except to make a few people fantastically rich, to arm our inner cities, to criminalise a generation of users, and to leave tens of thousands of Latin Americans dead. As our cocaine maker in Peru happily told us: 'People want our cocaine because it is good and, for a while at least, makes them happy.'
(Angus Macqueen has directed many award-winning documentaries including The Death of Yugoslavia, Gulag, Dancing for Dollars and The Last Peasants. Cocaine starts on Channel 4 next Sunday and continues 20 and 23 January.)
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