19.10.2016 / words: Rich Lee
With the ghost of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar looming over Hollywood, not to mention Netflix’s megahit thriller Narcos, Rich Lee spoke to Guildford-based author, activist and speaker Shaun Attwood whose new book looks deeper into the life of the master criminal and the larger War on Drugs. A war that very nearly claimed Shaun himself…
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A young business graduate from Cheshire travels to Arizona USA with dreams of getting rich on the stock market. Within a decade he makes his first million, but the English rave culture he brought with him saw him lead a double-life as an ecstasy dealer.
The wild parties and lucrative lifestyle led to ever riskier deals with some of the most dangerous criminals in the underworld. But just before the hitmen of notorious Mafioso Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano could reach him, SWAT raided his apartment beginning an eight-year journey through the hell of America’s most brutal jails and Arizona’s Department of Corrections.
"You can’t change your past but you can help other people to stop them making the same mistakes”
It’s a story as gripping as the most unsettling crime fiction, and that’s before the tales of dead rats in the food, cockroaches crawling in his ears at night and savage murders by guards and gang members brought the spotlight of international media on the conditions there, all thanks to the first prison blog started by Shaun. He wrote Jon’s Jail Journal using a tiny pencil sharpened on a cell door and smuggled his writing to the outside world.
Since his release in 2007, and subsequent lifetime ban from America, Shaun settled in Guildford and shares his story (powerfully recorded in his autobiographical bestselling ‘English Shaun’s Trilogy’ and captured in a National Geographic documentary series ‘Locked Up Abroad’) with young people around the UK, using his own harrowing experiences behind bars to cast light on the harsh realities of drugs and crime.
“I point out to them the consequences, because they think they’re invincible and can get away with everything,” says Shaun. “But because my story is so hard hitting, it creates a visceral reaction. And the teachers tell me that the kids that stay behind to ask me questions, they’re always the students that are the hardest to reach.”
Of his own younger self, Shaun has had to make peace with his past. “I harmed society by putting people on the road to drug use. I thought I was keeping the party going, but I was misguided. You can’t change your past but you can help other people to stop them making the same mistakes.”
... The War on Drugs ...
For Shaun Attwood, however, the most grievous mistakes made in the arena of drugs aren’t those committed by the users. To him, the entire War on Drugs waged by the United States and allies since Nixon declared it in 1971 (but which, he explains, has darker, racist roots that go back to the depression of the early 20th century) leverages millions of dollars for private prisons while imprisoning millions of young people, most of whom had nothing more than the temerity to experiment with marijuana.
“What happens to that young person then?” he asks. “They get put in prison where there’s heroin, crystal meth and gangs; they make their criminal connections in prison and by the time they get out they really are full-blown criminals! The hard-line policies have failed."
So if the governments and criminal justice systems fail both users and addicts, how then should society treat them? “I advocate education instead of incarceration. But for people who are doing drugs, a lot of the time it’s a cry for help. And if education is failing them then they should be referred to mental health services and get guidance and counselling to help them deal with their addiction issues.
“I didn’t know I was self-medicating because I had addiction issues, I was just out there doing it. But once I had a psychotherapist who explained all that and gave me the tools to channel my energy towards better things, I’ve been able to stay away from drugs.”
... Finding Escobar ...
Shaun’s investment in a Drugs War that very nearly made him another statistic has led him to write a new trilogy of books exploring the conflict through the geopolitics of the USA, Central and South America. And his timing couldn’t be more perfect as the ongoing struggle has seen its central, real-life antagonist Pablo Escobar take the public’s imagination hostage thanks to the hugely popular Netflix series Narcos. Two movies about Escobar are also in production: 'American Made' starring Tom Cruise and 'The Infiltrator' with Brian Cranston (who, you’ll remember, played that infamous fictional drug dealer, Walter White.)
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in Narcos
“The thing that makes Pablo such a fascinating person are his contradictions,” explains Shaun. “He was the wealthiest criminal ever - they estimated him to be worth $30 billion. But he grew up poor during the ‘Violence’ (the Colombian civil war that raged from 1948 to 1958) and learned that it was triggered by the CIA assassination plot that took out the leader of the country and saw hundreds of thousands of people die, peasants hung and burnt in their own villages, and it terrified him.
“So he swore that unlike the politicians of his day he would rise up and help the poor. And that’s one thing he absolutely did. I’m not saying he wasn’t a complete psychopath - I’m not trying to humanise him! But as he made money he went into the slums and built homes, hospitals, soccer stadiums, roads and schools. He spent tens of millions helping the poor and that’s why to this day he’s still revered as a saint in some communities.”
“When it came to anyone crossing his business, he would kill them in a heartbeat"
Of course, Escobar’s psychotic bursts of violence are well documented by the TV series, but in Shaun’s first book of his War on Drugs trilogy, Pablo Escobar: Beyond Narcos, he fills in much of the hidden history that the show either chooses not to, or fails to reveal.
“When it came to anyone crossing his business, he would kill them in a heartbeat. But every crime in Columbia back then was blamed on Pablo, and Narcos has continued that theme. The series is a pro-DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) version of events. The protagonists, the two DEA agents, who according to Narcos were there from the beginning, in actuality they came in towards the end of the hunt for Pablo. So if you research more carefully you find it was far more complex. The authorities weren’t trying to take out Pablo for the good of humanity, they were taking over his cocaine business. And that includes the police who were paid off by rivals like the Cali Cartel.”
Shaun’s books reveal the dark ironies and devastating policies that made a figure like Escobar possible as well as enabling a war on drugs that makes corporations rich and throws lives away in prisons. “If America had not made the active ingredient of the coca plant insanely valuable [by making it illegal], Pablo Escobar could not have done what he did. It created the black market that these gangsters took control of. The thing that I point out in the book is that fighting these people is as big business as the black market and the money being made by the criminals. So you have to ask: if the status quo is maintained, who benefits?”
Thumbnail image: Libi Pedder