The Longform Guide to Cocaine

Stories about blow that don’t suck.

 Musician Gil Scott-Heron performs during day one of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in 2010. He died in 2011.

Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

It’s a helluva drug, etc.

Cocaine Incorporated
Patrick Radden Keefe • The New York Times Magazine • June 2012

How a Mexican drug cartel makes its billions.


“But Chapo’s greatest contribution to the evolving tradecraft of drug trafficking was one of those innovations that seem so logical in hindsight it’s a wonder nobody thought of it before: a tunnel. In the late 1980s, Chapo hired an architect to design an underground passageway from Mexico to the United States. What appeared to be a water faucet outside the home of a cartel attorney in the border town of Agua Prieta was in fact a secret lever that, when twisted, activated a hydraulic system that opened a hidden trapdoor underneath a pool table inside the house. The passage ran more than 200 feet, directly beneath the fortifications along the border, and emerged inside a warehouse the cartel owned in Douglas, Ariz. Chapo pronounced it ‘cool.’”


“‘When this new route was complete, Chapo instructed Martínez to call the Colombians. ‘Tell them to send all the drugs they can,’ he said. As the deliveries multiplied, Sinaloa acquired a reputation for the miraculous speed with which it could push inventory across the border. ‘Before the planes were arriving back in Colombia on the return, the cocaine was already in Los Angeles,’ Martínez marveled.”

Blow Hard
Gus Garcia-Roberts • Miami New Times • April 2010

Scott Storch, a producer who earned six figures for beats he made in less than an hour, was worth an estimated $70 million. Then he blew it all in a bizarre cocaine binge.

“A $3 million 34-carat yellow-diamond pinkie ring crowned his personal jewelry collection, which also included a diamond watch formerly owned by Michael Jackson. He paid $20 million for a 125-foot yacht. And the pièce de résistance: his 2006 purchase of a 18,000-square-foot white-columned Palm Island mansion, dubbed Villa Ferrari, for $10.5 million.


“Storch shuffled through women who were equally expensive. He gave heiress Paris Hilton a Maybach and flew her to the French Riviera via private jet—at a cost of $275,000, according to XXL Magazine—and became full-fledged paparazzi prey by reportedly dating Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, rapper Lil’ Kim, and porn star Heather Hunt.


“Jackson now admits he was an ‘enabler’ to his friend’s reckless spending: ‘There were warning signs early that a crash and burn was in the future,’ but, Jackson reasoned, as long as Storch kept making hits, he could sustain his purchases.

“Then Storch discovered the ego fertilizer known as cocaine. Soon he was snorting every day, Jackson says. ‘It started out light, and then it just escalated.’”


BMF: The Complete Series
Mara Shalhoup • Creative Loafing Atlanta • December 2006

The rise and fall of the Black Mafia Family, once one of the largest cocaine empires in American history.

“To understand the story of Big Meech, you must first understand that the Black Mafia Family was two things: an alleged drug crew called BMF and a legitimate company called BMF Entertainment. And Meech was believed to be the leader of both.

“At BMF’s height, investigators in a half-dozen jurisdictions had reason to suspect that the crew was one of the nation’s major drug-trafficking organizations, moving hundreds of kilos of cocaine a month. Federal prosecutors would estimate that BMF pulled in tens of millions of dollars annually – at least $270 million since the organization got its start.


“An enterprise of that size pretty much guarantees that its leader could have anything money could buy. But in 2004, Meech had his sights on new territory. He wanted to become a credible name in hip-hop.”


New York Is Killing Me
Alec Wilkinson • The New Yorker • August 2010

A profile of Gil-Scott Heron.

“A theme that Scott-Heron often brings up at performances is how people say that he disappeared during the past decade—during the years, that is, when he was serving time. Not long ago, he sold out the Blue Note, a club in Manhattan. ‘I read all of those reviews that said I disappeared,’ he said. “Wouldn’t that be great if I could add that to my act? Come up here and—poof!l Then he said, ‘I had read how great I was before I disappeared. It makes me afraid to show up.’


“When I first began visiting Scott-Heron, he would leave the room at intervals and go into his bathroom. The next time I went to his apartment, he went into his kitchen and a stream of smoke drifted out. One day, I turned around, and he had his crack pipe to his lips, and after that he didn’t bother to leave the room anymore. Sometimes he would fall asleep in the middle of an interview, and I would excuse myself.”

The Mystery of the Tainted Cocaine
Brendan Kiley • Stranger • Aug 2010


How the bulk of the cocaine entering the U.S. ends up cut with a cattle dewormer.

“So what’s the incentive to use a relatively expensive cut of something that makes your customers sick and increases your smuggling risk? Even stranger: The cocaine trade, in both smuggling and production, has fragmented in recent years (more on that in a minute). If there’s no central production, how did hundreds and hundreds of independent shops come to use the same unusual cutting agent?


“Nobody seems to know, including experts I spoke with on both coasts of the United States: doctors, scholars, chemists, think-tank fellows, research scientists, federal and state public-health analysts, law enforcement agencies from the Seattle Police Department to the DEA, and even people who work in and around the drug trade. Everyone has theories, but nobody has answers.

“It’s a mystery.”

Searching for the Godmother of Crime
Ethan Brown • Maxim • July 2008

A profile of Griselda Blanco, aka the “Black Widow,” who pioneered the cocaine trade in New York and Miami.

“Standing barely five feet tall and weighing 165 pounds, with a wide, oval face and cleft chin, Blanco was no drug lord’s fantasy chica, even if her growing reputation with street dealers and law enforcement had earned her the nickname “the Godmother.” She’d returned to Colombia because she was unsatisfied with her relationship with Bravo, and his stewardship of their vast enterprise. Millions in profits had gone missing, and Blanco blamed her husband. So when she and her enforcers pulled into the parking lot of a nightclub outside Bogotá, she tucked a pistol into her ostrich-skin boot. After all, this was Colombia, where cocaine, and the mountains of money that came with it, was stronger than any loyalty, a fact proved by the fresh corpses dumped outside rivals’ doorsteps every morning. Stepping out of her limo, Blanco strode toward Bravo, who was waiting impatiently for her across the lot, backed by his own team of glowering goons. Sensing his wife’s rage, Bravo lashed out, accusing her of allowing the “Godmother” talk to go to her head. According to lore, a furious Blanco drew out her pistol and fired several shots point-blank at her husband. He responded by pulling an Uzi out of his waistband. In the melee, six bodyguards were killed. Blanco was struck in the stomach but would ultimately recovered from her wounds. Her husband, shot in the face, was not so lucky.”


Soul Men
Nez Zeman • Vanity Fair • Jan 2013

Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and the making of The Blues Brothers.

“The film’s budget is $17.5 million, then an expensive proposition, particularly for a comedy. Or whatever it is. Nobody quite knows. There’s comedy and lots of it. There are car chases and crashing helicopters. But all of the above revolve around four giant song-and-dance numbers, each starring a different music giant: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Cab Calloway. Not to mention the performances by Jake and Elwood.

“‘You could tell there was confusion,’ Landis says. ‘I told some of the crew, “This is a musical.” They were so confused. They didn’t know what the fuck they were making.’


“By August, though, everyone knows one thing. The production is falling behind, and fast, and the trend is largely attributable to Belushi, who stays out until all hours. Usually he can be found at his speakeasy. Sometimes he can’t be found at all. Except by cocaine, which finds him everywhere.

“Friends, fans, and hangers-on literally throw it at him. They slip vials into his hands and pockets. ‘Every blue-collar Joe wants his John Belushi story,’ says Smokey Wendell, who would soon become Belushi’s anti-drug bodyguard. ‘Every one of those guys wants to tell his friends, “I did blow with Belushi.”’”


The Perfect Dealer
Elizabeth Spiers • Gawker • Jan 2003

Customer feedback on the New York City coke dealing industry.


“’Safety is important to me, too,’ she adds. ‘It’s definitely not “safety first,” but safety, maybe,fifth.’

“Quality is also a serious issue.

“’One time Guido was out of the country and he had somebody else covering his car. And [the guy] cut it so badly. You know he’s just an addict, going around with all the coke in the world. I’m not saying I couldn’t have all the cocaine in the world and not do it all. But that’s really terrible.”

“‘It’s just so frustrating. Because it’s never a half-assed decision to buy coke. [It’s] like, “okay, let’s do it.” It’s not the kind of thing where you say, “eh… maybe. So you get all the people together; you get the money; and then you call and you can’t get it. It’s a level of frustration I don’t think you really experience anywhere else. They’re playing with your emotions.’”


Snow Job
Skip Hollandsworth • Texas Monthly • April 2002

Two aggressive Dallas cops. One confidential informant. Hundreds of pounds of cocaine. Fifty-three drug traffickers busted. Sound too good to be true? It was.


“Little did the 41-year-old attorney know that she was about to blow the lid off a conspiracy to plant large amounts of ground-up Sheetrock disguised as cocaine or methamphetamine on poor Hispanics, all of whom spoke little or no English, and get them sent to prison on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking. The Sheetrock Scandal, as it is now called, has embarrassing echoes of the controversial drug-related arrests of forty black men and women in the Panhandle town of Tulia in 1999. The FBI has launched an investigation into the activities of Dallas Police narcotics officers, and the DA’s office has dismissed 63 cases against 44 defendants, some of whom have spent five months in jail; another 17 cases against 9 defendants are expected to be dismissed. The scandal has tarnished the reputations of Dallas police chief Terrell Bolton and Dallas County district attorney Bill Hill, who have had to rebut allegations that they and their top lieutenants failed to notice the misdeeds taking place right under their nose.


“Most disturbing about the scandal, at least to many Dallas citizens, is the realization that the police are not even coming close to getting drugs off the street. Of the 1,447 pounds of powdered ‘cocaine’ that were supposedly seized in 2001, much of it discovered in large busts that were later ballyhooed at press conferences, nearly 700 pounds reportedly turned out to be fake. ‘It’s hard to believe something so sinister could have happened,’ says Barbare. ‘And it’s even harder to believe a system was in place to have let it happen.’

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