Image Union, episode 0435

"Cocaine Express" is a short documentary about the experiences of photographer Henry Herr Gill and writer Rick Soll, journalists for the Chicago Sun Times. They describe the details and enormous scale of the underground drug trade between the United States and nations in South America. The footage is mostly black and white photographic stills with Gill and Soll narrating. They trace their steps through different South and Central American towns, and talk about various characters and situations they encountered along the way.

0:10Copy video clip URL Image Union/WTTW Chicago slate.

0:46Copy video clip URL Image Union opening.

1:30Copy video clip URL Narrator: “It has become a special symbol of the jet-set. Some call it the Hollywood Cocktail: It’s cocaine. The champagne of illegal drugs…This program shows where it’s grown, how it’s processed, and how it gets into the United States.”

2:24Copy video clip URL Photo montage from various moments in South America.

2:54Copy video clip URL Journalists in Peru: “Felix was 26 years old when we first saw him he was picking coco leaves off a scrubby looking bush and putting the leaves into his mouth…This is the beginning of the dope trade…this is why it’s so hard to get rid of it…it’s culturally engrained.”

4:05Copy video clip URL “The prices made along the trade increase geometrically as you go from here until the United States.” Journalists describe the derelict nature of a drug city in Peru, Tango Maria, including a slum within the city called Little Chicago.

5:28Copy video clip URL Enrico Silvo of Tango Maria shows Soll some of the oldest coco bushes in Peru. Are related by Soll: “Cocaine is a weed, it’s the only thing that grows here.”

6:38Copy video clip URL Octavia, a matriarch of one of the region’s richest cocaine families, had been caught making cocaine into paste.

7:31Copy video clip URL Journalists describe pictures of the police force’s morning line-up and El Chino, the superior officer.

8:24Copy video clip URL “The flow of this business is astonishing…once the leaves are confiscated they’re thrown on the side of the road…cause once they get wet again they become useless.”

8:47Copy video clip URL Gill describes finding a ledger book in an old man’s car. The book leads them to a cocaine farm. They detail the cocaine collection, drying, and purifying process.

11:56Copy video clip URL A shot of four balls of coco paste, worth millions of dollars, that were discovered by accident in a routine search. The remaining footage bounces from location to location.

12:03Copy video clip URL Journalists talk about their experiences in Lima, where the serious drug deals are made. They characterize Bill and Naomi, Americans, who were arrested in Lima.

13:27Copy video clip URL The house of The Fly, who was willing to pay off Peru’s national debt if he were allowed to elide imprisonment.

14:04Copy video clip URL Soll describes why cocaine eventually finds its way to Columbia: “Columbia is the only country in the world where they don’t really have laws about certain types of ingredients. Ether can be bought over the country any place.” For example, Guamo, a city in Columbia, is littered with cocaine labs, since all one needs is “a couple of plastic dish pans, ether, and some filter papers, and a few cardboard boxes with a hundred watt light bulb to use as a dryer. Ether is the number one ingredient.”

16:27Copy video clip URL They meet one “Captain Galago” in Guamo, who had the appearance of a police officer, but was in fact a murderer.

15:48Copy video clip URL Gill talks about photographing a house from 200 yards away, and the police officers escorting him were still terrified.

17:58Copy video clip URL They talk about the crime in Bogota: “They are the best crooks in the world…this was an eerie place to be…people have absolutely no qualms about killing.” They discuss Una Central, a fancy shopping center built in the “new city” with drug money.

18:30Copy video clip URL Barranquilla, with lines of boats waiting for marijuana loads.

19:05Copy video clip URL Santa Marta, location of national police garrison. The cove in the port is notoriously dangerous. The reporters get chased and find a bullet hole in their window. The hole was created accidentally by a police officer fooling around with his rifle.

20:50Copy video clip URL Peohacha, “lawless, 250,000 acres of marijuana fields.” 6 billion pounds of marijuana are farmed there per year.

24:32Copy video clip URL Reporters leave Columbia and fly over Bimini and Andros, two graveyards of crashed airplanes. Given the money involved in the drug trade, it is no consequence to leave million dollar planes to rot on the runway.

25:47Copy video clip URL Miami: Here that “80% of the marijuana and cocaine in the United States enters the country.” Journalists discuss how stewardesses and pilots are paid off to facilitate drug trafficking.

27:23Copy video clip URL Credits.

29:11Copy video clip URL End of tape.


1 Comment

  1. Craig says:

    Fantastic film on the origins of the trade when it is really just beginning to get the attention of Americans. The Pablo Escobar before Pablo Escobar.

    The very personal storytelling style raised the stakes and injected an emotional flare putting the viewer in the shoes of the journalists, in the jungles under threat. Bravo.

    Looking back now 40+ years later, little has changed in the trade, new names new faces new drugs.

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