Closed Curtains Everywhere in South America



WORDS || Jack Cameron Stanton

Speaking with Rusty Young about crisis in Bolivia and Colombia

When I propose that our Western perception of suffering countries has developed from judgements made at an arm’s length, I am being banal. Our preconceptions wriggle under the microscope after the realities of other cultures hit the mainstream, and challenge us to think otherwise.

So when I spoke with Rusty Young, author of 2003 true crime biography, Marching Powder, his admission that “the side effects of the War on Drugs are far worse than the drugs themselves” was, in his eyes, already obvious. It’s us, eyes glazed over with blissful ignorance, that are playing catch-up.

Rusty’s intimate proximity with the drug economies of Bolivia and Colombia redefined his worldview. Since the publication of Marching Powder, he has spent eight years in Colombia, profiling child soldiers used in the ongoing civil war – all of which will be the factual core of his upcoming novel, due for release near Christmas this year.

But before that, in Bolivia, Rusty’s endeavours as a lone journalist with an eager heart enhanced the globe’s consciousness of corruption and mayhem in San Pedro, but failed to defeat the vices inside its walls.


Bolivia: Struggle and Strangeness in San Pedro Prison

A consequence of Rusty’s backpacking experience across South America in 2001, Marching Powder tells the story of Thomas McFadden, a convicted British cocaine runner incarcerated in San Pedro, Bolivia’s strangest gaol. Through their friendship, the book illuminates the social structure and economies of San Pedro, which is renowned for existing as a society rather than a prison. Freebase cocaine is manufactured and sold inside the gaol and illegal tours are offered to tourists: a consequence of having a prison full of ex-cocaine runners, it seems, is cocaine will inevitably run through your prison. Even more absurd, perhaps, is that inmates bribe guards so their families can live inside, and accommodation works capitalistically: the more you can afford, the better you will live.

Before Marching Powder’s publication, Rusty believed telling the truth would cease corruption in San Pedro. “I found it extremely disillusioning,” he said, after encountering bitter reality; “Unfortunately, my book changed nothing. I didn’t expect the prison to shut down, but hoped at least the drug trafficking, abuse of children, and prison tours would stop.”

In 2011, a twelve-year old girl became pregnant after being raped by inmates, including her father. This horror struck world news. And even though Bolivian authorities disputed the claim, they vowed to shut San Pedro forever. But it never happened. The prison remains open to this day.

Sometimes it’s hard for us, as Westerners, to swallow the fact that these evils are incredibly tough to combat. The prison won’t close because there’s nowhere to else to relocate the inmates. These families, deprived of their fathers and husbands, must move into the prison to survive. And the guards will keep turning a blind eye to corruption and drug running as long as their lives are plagued by poverty and beaten morale.

Rusty is retuning to San Pedro this May for the first time in twelve years, assisting the Channel 7 program Sunday Night in their investigation of the prison. He expressed some reservations. “Just before the book came out . . . I was almost arrested for secretly filming. The police came to our hotel and demanded the tapes. We had to flee the country. I’m not concerned about the prisoners, but the authorities . . .”

While Bolivia’s injustices are not confined merely to San Pedro, it acts as a functional microcosm for greater spoils throughout the nation. In Colombia, as well, the War on Drugs has pushed the country to the verge of catastrophe.


Colombia: Civil war, child soldiers, and corruption

In Colombia, the power struggle is arguably far more violent and abhorrent than Bolivia. According to Rusty, what started in 1964 as an ideological war between Central Government and the communist insurgents FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) has faded into protecting drug traffickers and forgotten dogma.

The US Government supplies the Central Government with military training and ammunition as a perfunctory gesture of fighting their War on Drugs. But in the shadows, a private army, called the paramilitary or outer defences, support the Colombian Government by effectively doing their “dirty work.” Ostensibly illegal, the paramilitary operates as a terrorist organisation, specialising in “torture, kidnapping, selective assassination – horrific stuff the Government’s army is restricted from doing, but tacitly supports,” Rusty said. Most disheartening, is the reality that Colombia has the second highest rate of child soldiers in the world.

So how did we reach this point of madness?

“The macro political dynamic facilitates the recruitment of child soldiers by FARC,” Rusty said. “They [child soldiers] are recruited for the supposed cause, because they only see injustice, poverty, and corruption in the Government. But the motor for their recruitment is cocaine sales . . . They are ultimately soldiers in a private army protecting a drug cartel.”

This complex predicament can be boiled down to the first rule of economics: supply and demand. “There is a good argument from their side that we are, in essence, funding a civil war,” Rusty said. “By taking cocaine, we fund terrorist organisations.” It may come as a surprise that South American countries, too often associated with cocaine, maintain very different paradigms to those we ascribe to them.

“You don’t really see Colombians taking cocaine in a nightclub. I mean, you do, sometimes, but it’s not like Australia. For a start, it’s a lot cheaper: cheaper than a beer. It doesn’t have the same glamourous price tag.”

For years, our media and wealthy personalities have perpetuated the stereotype of cocaine functioning as a social signifier. It represented our guilty pleasures – material wealth, avarice, success, excess, fame . . . the list goes on. To pay $300 for a gram of cocaine is a form of status signalling, it yells ‘Hey, look at the cash I’ve got to burn.’ But Colombians don’t think that way. Their lives are tougher, and most are unfamiliar with the abstract constructs of our consumerist society. Extremities of poverty simultaneously explain the spread of corruption in policing bodies and the likelihood of people turning to crime and drug running. The cycle is self-fulfilling and Sisyphean. “For Colombians,” Rusty said, “cocaine is a cheap dirty drug that ruined their country.”

Rusty applied his experiences in Bolivia to how he tackled inciting change in Colombia. In 2011, he co-founded the Colombian Children’s Foundation, which aims to rehabilitate child soldiers and restore their autonomy.

Yet in the global sphere, Rusty believes the way to deter these drug-fuelled evils is to “control, license, and regulate. What if $290 from your gram of cocaine went towards rehab clinics, or hospitals, or anti-drug marketing campaigns . . . and kept money away from drug cartels and terrorist organisations?” But time and time again we have witnessed political heavyweights take the high moral ground, with a no compromise attitude. By doing so, and committing to this so-called ‘War on Drugs’, we fund, by proxy, the very organisations we strive to eradicate.

It’s not as simple as revolutionising the system overnight – I’m not proposing that. And I haven’t tried to give definitive solutions. What Rusty and I urge is reconsideration of our consciousness. At an arm’s length, we can always turn to the drawing board and discuss the next way to fight terrorists, forgetting that these policies often cause more suffering in faraway countries than they resolve.