- Published: 16 November 2021
- ISBN: 9781761046605
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 576
- RRP: $22.99
Life on a Coin Toss
Adjectives such as ‘singular’ and ‘extraordinary’ tend to be overused by biographers to describe the lives of the people they’re writing about, not to mention the publicists who are paid to promote their books. Actors, musicians, politicians, sportspeople, reality-TV stars: so many public figures are relentlessly hyped in the press or on social media when beyond their fleeting celebrity there’s nothing really singular or extraordinary about these people’s lives at all.
This, however, cannot be said for Luis Antonio Navia. For a man who is neither a public figure, nor a celebrity, nor an influencer, indeed someone you’ve never heard of (and I had never heard of him until I started writing what would become Pure Narco), he truly has led a singular and extraordinary life. If the old truism holds that everyone has a book in them, Luis has at least two or three, if not more.
Not only was this privileged son of Cuban high society one of America’s most successful cocaine traffickers for nearly 25 years, but he was also a hunted international fugitive before his 16 August 2000 arrest in Maracaibo, Venezuela, in one of the biggest multinational law-enforcement takedowns of all time, Operation Journey. At its conclusion it was hailed as the biggest-ever coke bust in Venezuelan history.
Luis was convicted of serious narcotics offences, went to federal prison, got out early after cooperating with authorities, loaned his knowledge and the insights he gained from a quarter century of smuggling for the world’s deadliest cartels to help the United States Government fight the so-called ‘war on drugs’, and today, as a reformed civilian, runs a construction business in Miami, Florida.
This is a man who knows just about everything there is to know about cocaine and just about everyone who has ever worked making it, transporting it and selling it. It’s why to this day American feds and law-enforcement agencies from Great Britain and mainland Europe still come to Luis for leads or background when working important cases. It’s also why Colombian cartel figures currently in jail come to him for help: as a paid private consultant, he can help build the weight of their testimonies when they cooperate in return for reduced sentences.
When a man survives so long at the top in such a bloody but lucrative business without resorting to violence or intimidation yet can still find the time to pack school lunches for his kids, a degree of braggadocio or egotism is perhaps to be expected. Especially when murderous drug lords such as the late Pablo Escobar and the incarcerated Joaquín Guzmán aka ‘El Chapo’ have become wildly popular anti-heroes to millions of people around the world. (We truly live in strange times when such amoral killers become idols. Tom Wainwright, author of the book Narconomics, coined a term for this phenomenon: ‘reputational laundering’. It’s true and damning.)
This, however, was not my experience of Luis in the two-and-a-half years I spent working on this book. I got to know him very well and cannot recall a moment when he was anything other than modest about his exploits and self-effacing. He never attempted to talk up his past when he so easily could have. Nor did he try to convince me he was anything other than a former criminal with an abiding love for making money who got busted in just about the most spectacular way possible. For those two reasons alone he is commendable.
Most remarkably, though, few narcotraficantes (narcos for short) can say they’ve managed to successfully juggle a normal family life while transporting billions of dollars of blow and are not only alive but walking the streets today to tell their story.2 Even fewer go from selling grams to college students at Georgetown University in Washington, DC to operating a fleet of container ships to deliver tons to the mafia in Europe. It’s the stuff of criminal fantasy but for Luis every bit of it was true.
In 2020, Luis turned 65. He referred to himself many times as ‘Mr Magoo’ or ‘Inspector Clouseau’, a comic innocent in a world of true bad guys and the polar opposite to Jon Roberts, the alleged ‘cocaine cowboy’ who made out in the Evan Wright book American Desperado and the Billy Corben documentary Cocaine Cowboys that he was so evil, so violent, he was two steps removed from Genghis Khan.
While preparing to write this book I began reading American Desperado but gave up on it a third of the way through; after the part about skinning the Việt Cộng soldier alive, it just didn’t strike me as truthful.3 The late Roberts, who died in 2011, came across as a sociopath, highly unlikeable, lacking insight and, worst of all, a shameless liar. It didn’t ring true to Luis, either, who knew and worked with many of the same people Roberts did.
‘Jon Roberts was a fucking psycho. He was just an asshole with a gun. I’ve been around a lot of killers, people who were real killers, assassins. If you owed them money, they assassinated you. No torturing, no bullshit, they assassinated you. Don’t think what they do is the act of a coward. It’s the act of a person that’s determined and will carry out his determination. Nobody enjoyed skinning nobody alive. Believe me, it’s a bunch of bullshit.’
At least as I saw it, Luis came across as neither criminal nor violent – rather, confoundingly normal and, for the majority of the time, even-tempered. He wasn’t what I had expected for a man who had been a big-time narco. But I wasn’t totally naïve: he was flawed too. There was more to his story than he let on. There was darkness behind the comedy. His affability and charm, however, made it very easy to miss.
In late 2017 we met through a mutual friend in Miami who doesn’t want to be identified for fear of harm coming to her or her family. For months this woman urged the two of us to connect. She told me Luis had been approached by a writer for Harper’s Magazine in the US for a profile piece but, rather than agree to tell his whole story to the press, he preferred doing his own book. He needed someone to write it. So we began emailing each other, with our anonymous female friend CCed in each conversation.
In those first few emails, Luis was cagey and seemed reluctant to share anything useful, which was perhaps understandable given that we came from different backgrounds, had opposing ideas about the importance of money, didn’t know each other and were living on opposite sides of the world. I’d just spent four years writing a biography of AC/DC singer Bon Scott. Cocaine trafficking really was not in my wheelhouse, as an American might say, though I’d spent a lot of time talking to recovered drug addicts for my book on Bon. I was ready to walk away and turn my attention to something else. But soon Luis and I were speaking on the phone almost every day. Our conversations would go for hours. After that, our anonymous female friend left us to our own devices.
It’s worth pointing this out right from the start: Luis is a funny man. I immediately felt engaged by his sense of humour, street lingo and crazy stories that were worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film. Had he not been a narco he would have been a great stand-up comedian and probably died of a cocaine overdose a long time ago, such is the intensity with which he has led his life. How much he padded out his stories only he can really know, though he assured me everything happened the way he told it.
For such a larger-than-life personality, though, he maintains a very private existence. He doesn’t have a landline where he lives, doesn’t get mail at home and doesn’t have his real address on any form of official identification. His driver’s licence has an address for a massage parlour in Miami.
‘I cannot put my head on a pillow at night and know that my address is on a driver’s licence or I get mail; I can’t. That will never leave my body or my spirit, that lifestyle of incognito. I still keep to my old ways. I don’t bring anybody home. Nobody.’
When one time he got an AT&T bill with his real name on it, he ‘fucking freaked out’ and phoned the telecommunications company to tell them, ‘I’ve just been kidnapped in Colombia!’ He requested they change it to a ‘nice Jewish name’ as he was still getting kidnapping threats and wanted to keep as low a profile as possible. AT&T complied ‘right away’.4
Luis was also a complex character because while he could be genuinely endearing and lovable, a sort of diminutive, cuddly Cuban-American version of John Travolta’s Chili Palmer from Get Shorty, some of his behaviour was not always so heartwarming, which he would justify through a well-practised line in moral relativism or equivalence. Whatever the cartels did was no worse than the US Government. Alcohol is a greater killer than cocaine but you never hear about that. And so on. Sometimes I readily bought his excuses and could see the logic of his thinking; but many more times I did not.
I never forgot he was someone who willingly consorted with (and by extension arguably abetted) some of the most violent criminals, some effectively serial killers, ever to walk the face of the earth. He liked to joke that being shot or decapitated were natural deaths ‘because it’s natural to the business you’re in’. He’s also the only person I know who can count as close personal friends half a dozen people who have appeared on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List, the register of terrorists and drug traffickers whose assets are frozen, among other punitive measures, by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the United States Department of the Treasury (USDT). He even gets a mention in the Paradise Papers, second only to the Panama Papers as the biggest leak of offshore investment documents in history.5
So he was no angel. He’d run with some bad people. His cognitive dissonance was strong. Our anonymous female friend joked, ‘Luis is like Tony Montana if he hadn’t died and got caught and had started a construction business in Miami. Scarface as senior citizen.’
The comparison was funny but not entirely accurate: Luis was educated and had never so much as purchased a gun let alone massacred a group of Colombian assassins with Montana’s ‘little friend’: a Colt AR-15 machine gun with attached M203 grenade launcher. But I saw her point. Any man who’s spent most of his adult life in and around the cartels and its 24/7 adrenalin rush is going to have a tough time readapting to the torpor of normal society.
I hate to admit it, perhaps it was a reflection on my comparatively uneventful life, but this mix of good and evil, lightness and depravity is the very thing that made Luis an inordinately charismatic interviewee. He could be wholly unsympathetic at times because he remained so steadfastly unapologetic about his 25 years of crime, but he was the coolest person I’d ever met. He’d lived.
As he memorably described it, ‘Gangsters want to live a great three years than just a mediocre 30. If I die, I die. Go out with a bang. What’s life? We go on to the next one.’
Luis’s life was like the adventure I’d never had: a tale of pure escapism that could sit comfortably alongside an old shopworn VHS cassette of Romancing the Stone. The fact of the matter is I got completely sucked in.
2 A full list of all the Spanish words used in the book and their meanings, as well as drug-trafficking slang, can be found in Glossary. Diacritics or accent marks are frequently used but familiar geographic names such as Mexico and Mexico City are spelled without accents.
3 It was no fault of Wright, who evidently spent a great deal of time trying to verify the claims his subject was making and apparently even cautioned Roberts not to include his war tales in the book.
4 Perhaps wisely, Luis has made a general habit of shying away from all forms of social media but he did once join Facebook. ‘The only friend I had was “Popeye”,’ he laughs, referring to Pablo Escobar’s chief sicario, the late Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez. Popeye died of cancer in February 2020.
5 As ‘Louis Navia’.
How does a young student majoring in Portuguese at Georgetown University in Washington, DC become one of the biggest drug smugglers on Earth? And how does he survive 25 years in the trade – and encounters with some of its most powerful and ruthless figures, from Pablo Escobar to Narcos: Mexico’s Alberto Sicilia Falcón – when he hates violence and never carries a gun?In his decades in the business, the savvy, charismatic Luis Navia was responsible for hundreds of tonnes of cocaine making their way across the globe. In the process, he became a multimillionaire, but while living as a fugitive spent heavily on a lavish but wasteful lifestyle. All while Luis – torn between guilt and adrenalin – tried to maintain a semblance of normal family life as he frequently veered out of control.In Pure Narco, Australian author Jesse Fink brilliantly tells this incredible story through the eyes of Luis, his family, and his wife and former lovers – as well as the relentless American law-enforcement officials who finally swooped and brought him to justice. It’s a white-powdered, white-knuckle ride you’ll never forget.Buy now
Picture a fairytale’s engraving. Straight black trees stretching in perfect symmetry to their vanishing point, the ground covered in thick white snow.
Evening shadows shroud his face in silhouette.
I’m on the highway a few miles out of town when the noise starts: a scraping, grinding din that jackhammers my heart into my stomach.
‘For young people who have never been through any of those things, or lived in a time when they were happening, this seems just frightful . . .
If you had visited the quaint English village of Great Rollright in 1945, you might have spotted a thin, dark-haired and unusually elegant woman emerging from a stone farmhouse called The Firs and climbing onto her bicycle.