Documentary Review: Cocaine Unwrapped

By Mabel Gonzalez Bustelo - 18 September 2013
Documentary Review: Cocaine Unwrapped

Cocaine Unwrapped Seifert, Rachel (Director), 2011. UK: Darmouth Films. 

This is the story of the cocaine trade and the ‘war on drugs’ as conducted in the Western Hemisphere. With a formal documentary approach and structure, this balanced film makes an art of the narrative economy: What we have here is the story narrated by those affected and that hardly (if ever) reach a headline. From small farmers fighting for survival in Bolivia and Colombia to imprisoned drug ‘mules’ in Ecuador, to the catastrophic effects of the Mexican fight against organized crime, and the plight of dealers, consumers and cops in the US city of Baltimore.

Rachel Seifert is an award-winner documentary producer with a focus on social and political issues as in Who Am I? The Found Children in Argentina and the Channel 4 Dispatches film The Kids Britain Doesn’t Want. Her ambitious directorial debut, Cocaine Unwrapped, uncovers the scale of damage caused by the war on drugs and its impact on human rights, development and human security.

The UN Office on Drug and Crime World Drug Report 2013, released last June, depicted a global drug market with cocaine consumption on the rise in Latin America, Asia and parts of Africa, while stabilizing in Europe and slightly decreasing in the US. Heroine markets show similar patterns although in different geographical locations. As a whole, the only drastic change in the global market of illegal drugs is the rising availability, variety and consumption rates of new psycho-active substances. The global business of illicit drugs has an estimated annual value around 870 billion dollars: Six times the total amount of the official development assistance (ODA) and 1.5% of the global GDP.

These figures show the shortcomings of the global prohibitionist regime of narcotic substances. The war on drugs, launched by President Nixon in 1971, has cost the US 1 trillion dollars. It relies on a militaristic approach that puts the burden of the fight against illegal drugs on producer and transit countries, which receive military aid to eradicate crops (frequently by force and even using aerial spraying); to dismantle OC groups and capture and extradite their bosses (the ‘kingpin strategy’) and, to a much lesser extent, for institution building and alternative development.

The US has been the main cocaine consumer market for decades, while coca leaves are only produced in the Andean region. Those factors explain why most of this war has been conducted in the Western Hemisphere. Latin American countries have implemented the policies sometimes on their own will and at times under US pressure. With different degrees of US support and funding, Colombia fumigated millions of acres of crops during the past decade and Mexico has become involved in a fight against organized crime that has caused around 60,000 deaths in six years.

One highly remarkable feature of this film is access to the people affected. Small farmers in isolated Colombian Departments like Nariño, on the Pacific Coast, with scarce State support and difficult (if any) access to markets for other agricultural products, rely on coca plants as a coping and survival strategy. Their economic and social disadvantage is complete when their crops (legal and illegal) are sprayed repeatedlyin the eradication effort. A peasant summarizes their need to choose between the bad and the worse: “I’m still surviving with some coca plants and a few bananas; otherwise I would have joined the guerrillas by now”.

Cocaine Unwrapped takes into account attempts to change drug policies at national levels. Coca farmers in Bolivia, repressed for decades, find themselves more protected as the current Government differentiates between coca leaves as a natural product and cultural patrimony, and cocaine production and traffic as a punishable activity. In Ecuador, the Government is improving jailing conditions for people (mostly women) who worked as ‘mules’ in times of scarcity, and has put in place rehabilitation programs.

But this war is not only waged overseas and its impact is also well felt in the US. With the highest incarceration rates in the world, a great amount of them correspond to drug charges (the Baltimore sections in the film resonate quite well among followers of The Wire). In mid-August 2013 two events took place that could change how this ‘war’ is waged inside. A New York judge ruled that the Police Department policy of stop-and-frisk violates the Constitution by disproportionately targeting black and Hispanic people. The tactic has been used 4.4 million times between 2004 and 2012 and 80% of the cases affected black and Hispanic suspects. On the other hand, the Attorney General Eric Holder announced the end of mandatory federal prison sentences for low-level and non-violent drug crimes (mostly related to marijuana).

In more than four decades of the war on drugs, most critical voices have come from civil society, and access to mainstream media or high level political fora was limited at best and non-existent most times. This in changing, with the debate being joined by political figures, new and old civil society groups, UN agencies and other international bodies like the Organization of American States (OAS). Alternatives proposed include the promotion of development (so that peasants are not restricted to illicit crop cultivation as their only survival strategy); support for institution building, democracy and governance (to minimize the risk of corruption and co-option of State actors by organized crime); and more emphasis in the fight against money laundering and connections between the legal and the illegal economy (instead of the detention of people and the disruption of illegal groups that are quickly replaced by others). Some voices go further and question the prohibition that is the baseline of the current regime.

Cocaine Unwrapped is highly recommended for all those wishing to understand the political, economic and social effects of the war on drugs. Seifert’s unprecedented access to Latin American presidents and former presidents, as well as to former drug czars, makes it all the more valuable. Those interviewed include Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, Cesar Gaviria, Gil Kerlikowski and Mike Trace, among others. Who knew, before watching this film, that the father of Ecuadorian President Correa was once jailed in the US after being caught as a ‘mule’?

The film’s main two contributions can be summarised as this: Firstly, the ability to show how such seemingly distant points as a poor peasant in Colombia and young people in any developed city may well be connected through a cocaine ‘line’. And secondly, the deliberate attempt to give voice to the people that suffer the effects of current approaches, and who are demanding (and sometimes implementing) alternatives. Any new approach will find a long road ahead, since this is a highly controversial topic in political terms and solutions are not easy to find. But the debate should be welcomed, especially if honest, open and rooted in scientific evidence. Cocaine Unwrapped is an interesting contribution to the new political environment surrounding illegal drugs.


Mabel Gonzalez Bustelo is a journalist, researcher and international consultant specialized in international peace and security, with a focus on non-State actors in world politics, organized violence, conflict and peacebuilding. Formerly a Disarmament Campaigner in Greenpeace, she is a researcher at WIKISTRAT, invited professor in diverse Universities and a regular contributor to Spanish and international media. She holds an MLitt in Terrorism Studies from the University of St Andrews (2012) and is author of “The War on Drugs and Organized Crime in Colombia and Mexico”.

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