With medical marijuana a national movement and pot dispensaries jostling out t-shirt shops on the Venice Beach boardwalk, with Mayor Bloomberg admitting how much he once enjoyed weed and 4/20 practically a national holiday, we think less and less about marijuana as an actual drug.
But it is — and these high times can occlude the fact that many of those who grow weed remain engaged in what is, according to the federal government, an illegal enterprise. And that was certainly true of a bunch of San Diego-area high school students all the way back in the 1969, who — with the help of their Spanish teacher, no less — turned pot smuggling into what was effectively a giant, multi-million dollar corporation. Their improbable rise and inevitable fall is the subject of Coronado High, a lengthy feature from journalist Joshuah Bearman.
You may not know Bearman, but you surely know his work: Back in 2007, he wrote a story for Wired that became the Academy Award-winning film Argo. Reportedly, Coronado High has been optioned by George Clooney (Bearman declined to discuss the movie deal). Oh, and his new media start-up with fellow longform journalist Joshua Davis, called Epic, was favorably profiled in yesterday's New York Times by David Carr.
When The Atlantic Wire spoke to Bearman on Tuesday, his only regret about the nine months he spent reporting on the Coronado drug ring was that his story did not end up being longer. Mind you, the version available on The Atavist for $2.99 is close to 30,000 words, while an attendant GQ feature — not available yet online — is, according to Bearman, among the longest pieces that magazine has run in some time.
"There's clearly a book in it," Bearman says, describing how he found the Spanish teacher, Lou Villar (pictured at right), and his criminal cohorts. And, a minute later, with similar ebullience: "I can see the book so clearly."
The story starts in 1969, with the Summer of Love now two years hence and the nation mired in Vietnam. The summer of Stonewall, Woodstock, the Manson Family murders, the Moon landing. And in Southern California, a bunch of kids "who’d come up with the idea of swimming bundles of marijuana across the border from Tijuana," according to The Atavist's description of Coronado High.
The drug ring was eventually broken by the feds, but it remains a potent symbol of a nation in turmoil. "The country is changing, the times are changing, California is changing," Bearman says to The Wire of that period, describing how he nevertheless wanted to depict the guilty students "as people, not just smugglers."
Below, find an exclusive excerpt from Coronado High. The full story can be purchased on The Atavist.
Gigs, they called them. Or scams. Or barbecues, since they would plan them while throwing steaks on the grill at sundown. Everyone would get the call—“Do you want to go to a barbecue?”—when it was time to mobilize. The missions were simple at first, with just the 12-foot Zodiac running a couple hundred pounds at a time from Rosarito to the Silver Strand beach on Coronado’s tiny isthmus. But the loads were getting bigger, and even Eddie the Otter had trouble hauling 50- pound bags through head-high waves. And everyone knew it was unwise seafaring, to say the least, to negotiate the coast in that little raft with no lights and no navigation.
Still, Lance was an adventurer; he would have made a great swashbuckler, Lou always thought, or a test pilot. When Lance reached the Silver Strand, he’d signal with a flashlight and run the Zodiac right up onto the sand—Burn up the motor, he’d say, we’ll buy a new one. They would off-load the bags, deflate the boat, and pack it all into the van. It would be over in five minutes, the most exciting five minutes they’d ever experienced: everyone holding their breath until the van was on the road, knowing as they drove away that they each had just made twice their parents’ annual salary.
At first there was one gig a month. Then it was one a week. Within a year, the crew was scaling up from the Zodiacs to a clandestine armada of speedboats, fishing boats, even a 40-foot cabin cruiser. Some of the money they made went back into the business. Lance bought a Chris-Craft called the Lee Max II and rebuilt the engine so he could carry serious weight at top speeds. They hired beach crews to expedite the off-load.
It was risky, bringing more people into the operation, but it was Coronado, and everyone knew each other. “If we take care of them,” Lance said, “they’ll take care of us.” And the partners could afford to be generous. Still in their twenties, they were walking around with $50,000 in their pockets, then $100,000, then a quarter of a million dollars. “Don’t you love it,” Lance once remarked, “when life goes from black and white to Technicolor?”
Lou walked into a bank, asked for the balance of his mother’s house, and paid it off in cash. Once, when he was buying first-class tickets to Hawaii for himself and his girlfriend, it dawned on him that he had enough money to hang out there and surf for the rest of his life. And he might have, had Ed and Lance not flown over personally to retrieve their partner. “Come on, Señor Villar!” Ed said. “There’s more money to be made!”
It got to be like clockwork, enough so that sometimes Lance’s and Lou’s girlfriends would tag along on the supply runs to Tijuana. It was about this time that Lance started calling Lou “Pops,” a nickname that caught on. “What do you think, Pops?” Lance asked one evening, drinking Coronas on the beach in Baja.
“I think we got a good thing going here,” Lou said. “Let’s not fuck it up.”