The use of coca leaves (where cocaine is derived) goes all the way back around 3000 years. However crack, the crystallised form of cocaine was popularised during the 1980’s. The popularisation of crack in the USA overall lowered the price and caused an epidemic. Now, if there was an epidemic in the USA you can only imagine what it was like in Colombia. Colombia as you may have guessed heavily suffered. Dealers for example, Pablo Escobar mapped out global exportation routes and supplied the USA with approximately 80% of their drugs. This made almost $22 billion per year which was literally so much money he’d have to bury it in the ground. Anyways, the high demand and the low cost of coke was capitalised on by drug dealers who then sold it as crack rock, a diluted, cheaper, smokable form which returned a higher profit. During the peak of the crack epidemic an estimated 5 million US Americans used crack regularly. In the late 80’s crack became available in Colombia. Basuco is a poor man’s version of crack cocaine basically made up of crude extract from the coca leaf and often smoked with tobacco or a bit of weed. Basuco literally translates to ‘dirty trash’ costing as low as 25 cents for a 3 minute high.
We went to Medellin with the intention to stay a while, relax and get a grand Colombian introduction. We shared a taxi with a US American guy we met on the plane. He had a a hostel in Poblado. the tourist district of Medellin. The whole 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel the taxi driver told us of the drugs, the beautiful men and women and the bicycles in Medellin. As we entered the tourist district we noticed the lights, the hostels, the restaurants and the nightlife of the city. It seemed exotic and intoxicating all at once. From the window of the taxi we drank it all in. We dropped off our new friend, and watched the lights and excitement fade away. We’d booked a hotel, surprisingly cheaper than all of the hostels in Poblado, at $10 per night in a private room. We waited eagerly to see our place which we expected was near Poblado but the driver just kept going. From lights and life to graffiti, rubbish and a shit load of police we watched the city change in front of our eyes.There was a heck of a lot of homelessness and our taxi driver locked our doors when we stopped at traffic lights. At one traffic light we watched a man buy drugs with a sly handshake on the sidewalk. We realised maybe around that time that we’d booked the wrong area. We were in El Palo. Outside of our hotel there was a couple guys on what we soon found out was basuco. Some strung out, others talking to themselves, peeing and shitting in the open streets, smoking basuco or sleeping.
Over the next few days our love for our cheap hotel and our little area grew. As we walked down the streets we would count the amount of people we watched smoking basuco. We had a continually growing tally until walking by a park close by where we lost count. For such a kaleidoscope of people and life in such a small area there was one thing virtually everyone around us had in common. They were black. Colombia is home to numerous minority groups including their Indigenous and Afro-Colombians and each face (let’s be honest, like everywhere else in the world) their distinct kinds of social and systemic racism. So, let’s talk about race.
Despite making up at least 10% of the population, Afro-Colombians suffer from very little political, media and social representation. As I walked the streets I was shocked by how European the people in the commercials looked. So why aren’t they represented?
As you may or may not know socioeconomic opportunities such as income, education, occupation, housing and health access, as a few primary examples are very much linked and can often be co-dependent. For starters it is estimated that 78% of Afro-Colombians live below the poverty line, earning on average $500 per year, a third of their white counterparts. Only 62% have access to secondary education which is often of a subpar standard. Afterwards, 1 in 50 attend university. Furthermore, it is estimated that 60% of Afro-Colombians do not have access to basic health care services. And with very little political representation, their agenda is often ignored in government. Does this sound familiar? Yep, well it should. It seems like everywhere in the world black populations are being oppressed and then blamed for not being equal under the guise of a colour blind system. Ignoring these systematic inequalities engrained in culture since European colonisation means that the black population is assumed to have the same opportunities as the white and shifts the blame to them for not having the same outcomes. The histories of violence, oppression and slavery that is still very much systematically and socially enacted today only re-perpetuate social inequalities.
This is why drug trafficking, gang membership and drug consumption is so prolific. Drugs are easy to access and to enter the industry you don’t need an education, it offers incentives for high income and frankly, in numerous neighbourhoods it’s hard to avoid. Furthermore, dealing with overt and covert racism everyday and being socialised that you’re in the wrong can be suppressive. The use of drugs can be seen as a way out.
For me, seeing people living in this way was shocking and confrontational. Sometimes travelling is hard, you can meet so many people in need of help but only be able to offer a little and sometimes none at all. Numerous people all over the world are living in different circumstances, subjugated by discriminatory systems which limit their opportunities and keep them poor. People selling and taking this form of crack, going hungry, being homeless, and being excluded from society is so systematically engrained that it becomes systematically accepted.