Shipping lines

Sex and drugs and disco – Chris Moss talks to the authors of Pure Narco, a fast-paced, character-filled true crime tale about 25 years in the international cocaine trade

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“That restaurant scene in Scarface was very real,” says Luis Navia. “Where he’s drunk and gets loud – I can relate to that because we used to be loud, a bit obnoxious. Everyone could tell because of how we spent – when we came in we got immediate attention from the maître d’, waiters. So everyone knew we were the bad guys.

“Once at French Connection restaurant in the Gables, it was summer, it was so hot and I had a good amount of drinks and some snorts in me – I just went to the tank where they kept the live lobsters and washed my hands and face. Like nothing. And why? I don’t know, because it makes no sense to wash your hands and face with salt water – especially in a lobster tank aquarium in a restaurant. But for whatever reason that thought crossed my mind and I felt like doing it and did it. You think anyone got mad? No! A couple of waiters came over and gave me some napkins and helped me dry my hands and face.”

Listening to Navia – seated on his sunny balcony overlooking the bay at Brickell, Miami, on WhatsApp – is like hearing a Beat poem narrated by a mafia gangster. That’s why his true crime story-cum-memoir, Pure Narco – co-written with UK-born, Oz-based author Jesse Fink – is such a ride. It’s pacy, uncensored and chaotic, as you’d expect from a book about trafficking cocaine, but Navia holds it together as storyteller and protagonist, racking out anecdotes with gusto and revealing ever knottier plotlines.

“Luis is a character,” says Fink. “He’s a funny man and when you’re talking to him he sounds like a wise guy from a Hollywood movie. He has a gift for one-liners. So he had enough personality for me to be sucked into his world. But his story needed fleshing out.”

For 25 years, Navia worked as a “logistics” boss for the biggest cartels in Colombia and Mexico. By any measure, his is a big life to tell, and Fink does wonders to squeeze into its 500 pages so many manic episodes, violent twists, night flights and ocean voyages.

It all started relatively serenely. Navia was born in 1955, in Havana, to upper-middle class parents. His father, Luis Sr, though a clean-living businessman, had associations through his work for a Cuban sugar mill magnate with the East Coast mob. In 1960, the Navias joined the migratory wave to Miami. Luis Jr went to university but smoked pot, “took a snort” with a cousin, did a bit of dealing and flunked. In 1978, he met Bia Gálvez, a 28-year-old beauty from the Dutch Antilles. It was lust at first sight, and Gálvez had impeccable connections, including a Medellín “bandido” known as Poli. Navia became his chauffeur and confidant, then dealer and associate. A few years later he was a millionaire five times over and a senior “mechanic” on the coke pipeline linking central Colombia with the US West Coast
and Miami.

Poli opened up a network that incorporated some of the biggest names, and nicknames, in the narco universe: the Ochoa brothers, Víctor Manuel and Miguel Ángel Mejía Múnera aka The Twins, Griselda Blanco Restrepo aka The Godmother, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha aka the Mexican and, at the apex, Pablo Escobar aka El Padrino – The Godfather.

“Everything is contacts,” says Navia. “My first contact was my ex-girlfriend who had connections with the Medellín cartel and the top hash dealers on the West Coast.

“Later on I was talking to the leaders of the top cartels every day, the Jeff Bezoses and Bill Gates of that world. Amazingly intelligent, interesting characters. Great contacts and high volumes was my niche.”

Soon he was shifting hundreds of kilos of pure cocaine, then tonnes, then plane and boatloads. He was one of Miami’s “cocaine cowboys” during the 1980s, when organised crime and drug-running took over South Florida. The rewards matched the risks. Navia cruised the beaches in supercars, carried hundreds of thousands of dollars in briefcases and lavished his cut on houses, clothes, food, drink and entertainment (waiters like those at French Connection were routinely given an “extra care” charge of $1,000-plus). With Gálvez on his arm he hit the nightclubs for Dom Pérignon and disco. Afterwards, sex and some lines, then more lines. Then other women, and a few more lines.

“It was a high intensity life,” says Navia. “Anything you want with a snap of the fingers, huge amounts of money, freedom from 9-5 work days, and the excessive lifestyle, full of adventure and beautiful women.

“It’s an over the top fantasy and that’s why people romanticise smugglers. People love fantasy. Why do they go to Disney? I lived life on the edge. No limits. Everything was possible. What you want when you want it and the thrill of the pirate life – you risk your freedom to live free! Smugglers’ Disney!”

As he fulfilled mega-deals and shipments to Europe, where prices for cocaine were much higher, Navia was overseeing increasingly complex operations. Simultaneously, the DEA, coast guards and police forces from several countries were on his tail. There were guns, assassinations, a kidnapping, a snitch. By the 1990s, Navia had a serious coke habit but was a “functioning” addict. He says the job was always as important as the partying and other perks.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about the business. What we major dealers had in common was that we were good at business. We were an elite club. It was an adrenaline rush talking to the top traffickers, the ones running corporations. They were highly motivated. They worked all the time.

“And I had to be good, too, to move tonnes of coke to Europe. Sure, we were nuts to be in that outlaw world but we didn’t joke when it came to business.”

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Navia spent time in Panama, Bogotá, Mexico City and Cancun. He was on the run from the law for 12 years, five as an international fugitive. He passed through France, Italy, Spain and Albania and lived north of Athens – a handy shipping hub.  “I avoided London,” he says. “I was told there were too many surveillance cameras there and I already had indictments on me at the time. We had a beautiful office in Mayfair too.”

Like Nicolas Pileggi’s Wiseguys (the basis for Goodfellas), like Scarface, like all stories about the illicit commercialisation of class-A drugs, Pure Narco moves inexorably towards a debacle – although Navia says he thought he was invincible.

“I was completely out of touch with reality. I thought I’d never get caught, never get killed. I thought one day I’d retire to Marbella. It was one thrill after another until that became normal, my everyday life. How I made it through alive I don’t know.”

It’s a thread that runs through Pure Narco – the feeling Navia had that he was living out his wildest fantasies. People who know him, including Fink, believe he still harbours romantic illusions about the time, that he can’t quite put the dream away.

It was law enforcement that probably saved his life. On 16 August 2000, Navia was arrested in Maracaibo, Venezuela, as part of Operation Journey –  an international drug-busting operation that saw the authorities confiscate almost 25 tonnes of cocaine worth about $1 billion and arrest 43 people. He was sentenced to 108 months but was released in 2005.

Fink doesn’t skimp on Navia’s capture, prison time, release and afterwards.

“One thing I didn’t want to do is glamourise the cocaine trade and be accused of making it seem fun. Luis made that very difficult because he had the time of his life working as a cocaine trafficker. He says he’s nostalgic for it.

“At the same time I think his time as a smuggler has had a negative impact on his life and the way he sees himself. There’s a degree of shame there. He’s aware that cocaine destroys lives and rips families apart. He’s a complex person.”

It’s not all about Navia though. “I wanted Luis’s former wife, Patricia, to be a big part of Pure Narco,” adds Fink. “For me, crime stories really resonate when you get to see how the criminal activity affects the families of the criminals.”

Push Navia a little and you sense the melancholy. Sure, he misses the characters and the rush of his former lifestyle, but he also regrets not saving money, consuming his own product, ignoring family advice and not giving it all up when his daughter was born.

“Mine was a misused life,” he says. “Not a wasted life,  but I did not take advantage of my prospects and education, a great school, a good university. I lacked focus. I was immature.”

The period covered in Pure Narco fills a gap in the history of the international drugs trade. Much has been written about the Medellín and Cali cartels that dominated in the 1980s. There’s a lot in the news today about Mexican drug wars. Navia pioneered the use of Mexico as a trafficking centre, but his personal account also shows cocaine dealing was fragmented and global, and how serious-looking shipping companies played a key role as fronts.

Navia respects the men who caught him, but has no time for the US’s so-called war on drugs.

“It’s a lost war. We need to change the war mentality, focus on regulation and tax, decriminalise drug use, and with the huge proceeds establish social welfare programmes and education.

“Addiction is a disease, an affliction that affects many members in our society. It shouldn’t force them into criminal situations and make them criminals. Treat addiction as a medical condition, not a legal one.”

As well as a superb true crime page-turner, Pure Narco is a light-touch morality tale about multiple addictions: to power, money, sex, beauty, business. Documentary-makers have shown interest. But it would work well as a feature film. Fink says Navia is friends with Andy Garcia. The lobster tank scene would brighten up any screenplay.

Right now, Navia works in construction, selling impact windows to hurricane-fearing Floridans. He has a sideline in PPE. “I’ve gone from coke to Covid,” he jokes. “Give the people what they want.”

But he’s always thinking about the past, and the possibilities. Before his arrest he was toying with one last big project.

“One of the things I was going to do before we got busted was to start growing coca in Africa. It would probably have been a clusterfuck, with the unstable regimes there, but that was my way of doing business – to always try new things, to always expand.”

Now that would make a great ending to any movie – fantasy finally overtaking fact on a beautiful, empty beach, with Navia in a sharp business suit, cellphone in one hand, suitcase full of money in the other.

“Am I scarred by it all?” he says, a smile escaping. “I think I’m blessed that I don’t have more issues. I guess I’m not completely normal.”

Pure Narco by Jesse Fink and Luis Navia is published by John Blake (£9.99) 

Main image: Officers in Venezuela with seized drugs. The bust took 25 tonnes of cocaine. (Nigel Brooks/AP)

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