From Blow to Snatched, Bruce Porter Illuminates the Drug Trade

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From Blow to Snatched, Bruce Porter Illuminates the Drug Trade 

By Seth Ferranti 05/18/16

Bruce Porter tells The Fix about Snatched—the follow up to Blow—which is the true story of Pilar, an aristocrat's daughter turned drug queen who later becomes an informant for the DEA and then gets kidnapped by guerrillas.

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Snatched: From Drug Queen to Informer to Hostage—A Harrowing True Story
via Author

The story of Pilar in the recently published Snatched: From Drug Queen to Informer to Hostage—A Harrowing True Story by Bruce Porter, is a surreal episode from the drug war trenches. The book focuses on one woman as she makes her way through the international drug trade. It's a true crime tale encompassing cocaine, money and kidnapping, ripped straight from yesterday’s headlines when the War on Drugs was prime time on our national consciousness. 

Pilar’s story is a sad one, about a woman thrust into a world of criminals, cops and guerrillas, where she did what she thought was best to survive and protect her family. Born an aristocrat, one of Colombia’s upper, upper class, Pilar attended European boarding schools growing up. It was only the finest for young Pilar. But she was attracted to the lives of the cocaine cowboys who peppered Colombia’s criminal underworld in the early '80s as cocaine derived from the coca plant became the country’s number one export. 

Through her husband’s businesses, Pilar became very familiar with cocaine smuggling operations. But after two divorces she made her escape to Miami, seemingly done with the life, only to be pulled back in by the DEA who then used her to infiltrate the Cali Cartel. This is where she helped orchestrate Operation Princess, one of the biggest money laundering stings in DEA history. Pilar was so astute at playing the role assigned to her that she was kidnapped by South American guerrillas and held for ransom. Abandoned by the DEA, she endured the jungle hideouts as a captive before escaping and eventually suing the DEA for leaving her for dead.

Porter interviewed everyone involved with the case and had to wait over a decade to finish the story. But this isn’t the author’s first foray into the cocaine lollapalooza. Porter penned the true crime classic, Blow, about George Jung that became the Johnny Depp vehicle of the same title. From one world of drugs, money and kidnapping to another, Porter is exposing the dirty secrets of the drug war. The Fix chatted with Porter by phone to ask him about his new book, the War on Drugs, and the long-term success of Blow.

How did you get involved with this story?

This is really a follow-up to Blow. The DEA officers who arrested George in the last part of the movie were the same ones who started operating the Princess case a few years later. One of the agents, Tom Tiderington, called me up and said, hey, here’s something really interesting. The Princess case ended in '95 with Pilar’s kidnapping.

I’ve been on and off this story since 1997 and really had to wait until her lawsuit, which took 17 years to run through the court system, before she won in 2014. If Pilar had lost the suit, the book might not have been published. The book publishers like to have a happy ending, just like the movie producers. She won almost two million, and that seemed to validate her complaint that the DEA and Justice Department had unfairly used her by abandoning her when she got kidnapped.

Pilar seems like such a juxtaposing combination. What did you learn about her as you wrote the book?

She was born in Cali, Colombia, the daughter of an aristocratic Colombian family. Instead of settling down to spend her life around the country club pool and marry, like most high-born Colombian women, she went out and got involved in a risky life. She fell in with a couple of high-up cocaine dealers. She married two of them, and by the time they’d gone off to prison, she was ready to settle down. She came to the states to raise her children. She wanted a quiet life.

But the DEA came knocking at her door, threatening to indict her if she wouldn’t help them infiltrate the money laundering business. She was a great success, resulting in the seizure of millions and millions of dollars and the indictment of hundreds of traffickers. For her participation she got kidnapped by guerrillas, because down in Colombia she was posting as a rich money launderer. She went off and spent four months in a little shack in the hills of Cali, and that’s basically what the book is about, how her DEA handlers had to get her back without letting the guerrillas know that they had a government agent in their clutches.

Who was Tom Tiderington and what role did he play in this story besides introducing you to it?

Tom Tiderington was a Fort Lauderdale police sergeant who was in the narcotic squad. He always wanted to be a narc because you get to ride around in flash cars and boats seized from the traffickers. He didn’t have to show up on time at the police station. They had lives of their own. When the DEA heard of Pilar they thought, here’s a real opportunity. Not only to make inroads into the drug business by infiltrating her into the upper echelons, but it would fund their police operations. 

As Tom would say over and over again, it’s a very exciting life. People like Pilar are their meal tickets. I mean, hardly any arrests in the drug business get made without the help of confidential informants—most of whom are dealers themselves who are avoiding longer prison terms by helping the police. The police and the confidential informant work together and it’s probably always going to be that way.

Drugs are a category of crime where the "victims" will not complain. The addicts are not going into the police station and saying, this drug dealer tried to sell me drugs. The addict, who is the victim, has no interest in police catching the drug dealer. The police need people who they arrest to turn and go after the drug dealers, because if not, they’ll never find them.

Was Pilar a victim or an active participant in everything she was involved in?

I think she was half and half. Tom Tiderington and his task force thought they were pulling something on Pilar by threatening to prosecute her if she wouldn’t help them, but Pilar knew very well she’d been involved in the drug business so long ago that the statute of limitations had set in. She saw being a confidential informant for the government as not a bad deal. 

She thought she could make a lot of money doing this. So Pilar was getting something out of it. Tom was getting something out of it because he was seizing money and funding his operation. It was one hand washing the other, up until the time she got kidnapped. No one counted on that. The DEA and Pilar had a symbiotic relationship, which means you’re feeding off each other. It was mutually profitable up until it wasn’t.

What do you think of the drug war and its policies?

One of the problems with the drug war is they tend to arrest two categories of people that aren’t going to make any impact on stopping it. The people who fund the drug trade are drug users. One is the addict himself. Police tend to pick on the drug addicts to arrest because they’re easy targets. This goes to the upper echelon of the DEA, which also tends to arrest addicts and low level drug dealers. Very few of the higher-up ever get picked up in the efforts to interdict drugs. The last 30 years has been a failure.

It affects everyone from the multi-billionaires down to the guy nodding out in the street. What really seems to be driving this effort in the wrong direction is the profitability of the enforcement business. I mean, the local police narc units, the federal narc units really depend on their arrest records to encourage high budgets to Congress. They tend to make arrests even though these arrests aren’t affecting the drug trade.

When you were writing Blow did you know that it would have the lasting impact that it’s had?

I knew Blow was really a good story. George Jung, the protagonist, was a really colorful character and he led an incredibly colorful life. I knew it was going to get published and I was pretty sure it was going to become a movie, but there’s no way I could have predicted the way it caught on. I think that had a lot to do with Johnny Depp, who played George in an incredibly affecting way, and people saw George’s life as a sort of mirror of their own—a working class kid who had dreams of glory, but he couldn’t earn them in the conventional way. He wasn’t a good student. He wasn’t going to get his college degree, but this didn’t prevent him from reaching out and going to the top. This is a dream a lot of people have, and he lived it for much of his life.

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