“Join the deadly journey of cocaine, from farmer to kingpin.
Meet Maria. Maria doesn’t see herself as a criminal. She’s just a farmhand picking the crops that never lose money: coca.
This is Cachote. He prays to the Virgin of the Assassins that his bullets find their target. If he misses, he’ll have to answer to the cartel who pay him to take out their enemies.
Pedro works in the coca labs. But this laboratory is hidden deep in the jungle, and he turns coca leaves into coca paste, a step just short of cocaine.
And finally, here is Alex. Alex is a drug-lord and decides where the drug goes next: into Europe or the US. And he wields the power of life and death over everyone around him.
Following one brick of cocaine from Colombia’s jungles to the Pacific Ocean as it races to join global underworld economy, Kilo is an unprecedented journey to the violent heart of the cocaine industry. On the way we will meet drug lords, contract killers, drug mules, cartel witches, as well as the Colombian police and US Coast Guard who are desperately trying to stop the kilo reaching the consumers in the world’s richest countries.
Toby Muse has been on the ground in the drug war for over a decade, earning the trust of those involved on all sides. Telling the human stories of how the world’s second most popular drug gets from the Colombian jungle to the London street corner, Kilo is a devastating account of a multi-billion-pound business whose influence reaches across the world.”
Kilo plunges the reader straight into the action. We begin in the jungle, as the peace brokered between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2016 reveals its weaknesses. Without the stability of a single, known rebel organisation, new armed groups sweep in, and the fighting escalates. The author is fully aware of just how complicated the situation is in the jungles of Colombia, and does not waste time trying to explain the various different groups in detail. For the majority of those living in the countryside, it matters little who the perpetrators of ‘the Violence’ are anyway; it only matters how many people are being killed at any one time. Muse deftly articulates the feelings of the coca farmers, most of whom would love to escape from a life of growing this illegal crop, but who are offered no viable alternative. Coca is all they know, and the help promised by the government never materialises. The author’s access gives us an insight into the reality of life in rural Colombia, and the scene is a desperate one. Attempts to stop the spread of coca farms seem futile; the authorities risk their lives to pull out bushes they know will be replanted almost immediately. The farmers know better than to look to the government to help them. Muse talks with men and women who sound utterly defeated by their circumstances, and it is harrowing to hear the hopelessness in their voices.
In the small towns, their product, now in paste form, is passed on for a modest sum that is still more than they could earn by any legal means. The farmers celebrate with drink and prostitutes and return to their farms. Already it is clear that Muse excels at character, painting beautiful, haunting portraits with a few words. Of a nineteen-year-old prostitute in La Gabarra, Muse says:
“So much life has passed across this face, through this body. This woman has seen more of humanity in this ghastly cell than I’ll see in several lifetimes.”
From the countryside, we move to Medellin. As an avid fan of the series Narcos, I felt on more familiar territory here, in Escobar’s old stomping ground, but Muse delves far deeper than any fictional account could. Cachote, the assassin, is described by the author with the deadpan humour that is scattered throughout this book:
“He’s not cursed with an abundance of smarts, but he’s got the malice and the balls to do this job.”
One of the many aspects which make Kilo such an original and engaging read is how effectively Muse allows his personality, or at least his personal thoughts, to leak onto the pages. I read more fiction than non-fiction, and have occasionally found journalistic writing to be too dry for my own taste. There is no such problem here; not only is Muse a wry, thoughtful and often amusing guide, but it is also clear that the journey he is bravely undertaking has a profound effect on him. He wrestles with the big questions: “How many live honestly only out of fear of the law?” and he does so with an openness which made me warm to him as a narrator, even as I felt awed by his courage.
War correspondents are fully entitled to a certain amount of swagger; but while Muse does have moments of being shockingly blase in dangerous situations, there is a strong recognition of the line between his role as witness and that of the participants in this endless war. He does not let his interview subjects off the hook for their crimes, but he recognises that this is a society in which many young men do not expect to live past thirty; in which murders are not “solved in forty-two minutes by attractive cops on the small screen”, but are instead a fact of daily life. I experienced a very small jolt of my own when I realised that the book that Alex, the drug-lord, considers his ‘self-help bible’ The 48 Laws of Power, sits on my husband’s shelf with his other management books. The phrase ‘accidents of birth’ springs to mind.
As the kilo rolls out of Medellin, destined for either Europe or the US, Muses’s focus shifts to the authorities engaged in the endless war on drugs. At the airport, he witnesses the arrests of drug mules, and the stories of how drugs are smuggled make for some grim reading. But it is the section in which he joins the Coast Guard in the Pacific that provides some of the most thrilling and dramatic prose in the book. Muse is a fantastic writer; his short, punchy sentences contain a sparse beauty, and as he rides the high seas with the crew of the James, the exhilaration of successful drug busts and the despair of failed attempts are captured in exquisite, gripping detail:
“As the adrenaline slowly rises in the blood, the teams joke and banter in the darkness. Electricity flows through the air. Excitement. Anticipation.”
Here in particular, the narrative pulls you inside it, lets you feel the spray of the ocean and the almost unbearable tension of the endless cat-and-mouse games played out across the vast expanse of the Pacific.
Reading Kilo is an immersive, thrilling and deeply engaging experience; this is not a book to sit back and read passively. In terms of the narrative drive, the conceit of following a single kilo of cocaine from the coca farms through the small towns to the cities, and from there on its way abroad, is simple and elegant. It works exceptionally well, providing natural shifts from one setting to another, creating the effect of a series of linked short stories, each one as vivid and richly populated by memorable characters as the last. The relentless movement urges you on, with barely time to pause for breath between each captivating instalment in the kilo’s journey. This is aided by Muse’s visceral writing style, which makes the reader feel as if they are diving head-first into cold, murky water with every new chapter. His writing is almost a physical sensation; it chills the blood with its bare, spare honesty.
It is difficult to express quite what an impressive feat Kilo is. Toby Muse takes the very best of investigative journalism and combines it with a huge talent for character, description and good old-fashioned story-telling. Habitual readers of both non-fiction and fiction will find themselves compelled to read on, to follow the kilo on its fascinating and often terrifying journey. It is a voyage of discovery masterfully helmed by a writer who has given so much of himself to tell us this story.
I had initially decided not to mention the current global situation in my review, but on reflection I feel it would be remiss of me not to emphasise that if you are looking for a book that will take you on a wild ride straight into the heart of a completely different, far longer-term crisis, this expertly crafted work will block out all other noise and occupy your thoughts for a good long while: an achievement that cannot be overstated in these strange times.
About the Author
Toby Muse is a British-American writer, television reporter, documentary filmmaker and foreign correspondent. He has reported from the front lines of the conflicts in Colombia, Iraq and Syria. He has embedded with soldiers, rebels and drug cartels, producing exclusive reports from cocaine laboratories and guerrilla jungle camps. He lived in Bogota, Colombia for more than fifteen years, reporting across South America and the endless drug war.
Published in hardcover and digital formats on 26th March 2020 by Ebury Publishing
With many thanks to Ebury Publishing for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review, and to #damppebblesblogtours for letting me be a part of the tour.